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Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

Young adulthood is a series of milestones. Hell, life is a series of milestones, but rarely do they come fast or make much of an impression. Some are good, some are bad, but all of them are formative, and all of them are shared. Kat, the protagonist of Gregg Araki's coming-of-age drama White Bird in a Blizzard, hit two big milestones at roughly the same time in high school. First, she met the beautiful-but-dim-witted boy next door, struck up a reluctant friendship based purely on how good he looked without a shirt, and promptly lost her virginity to him. It awakened an insatiable appetite in her, albeit one not shared by her distant new boyfriend. Second, almost immediately after losing her virginity, her mother simply... disappeared. No one knows how, or why, just that Kat's life is now different, forever. The crux of the film is not an investigation into the disappearance; rather, White Bird in a Blizzard is a look at how that disappearance affected Kat.

Or at least, the best parts of White Bird in a Blizzard are about how that appearance affected Kat. The story fractures from there, as we meet Kat's friends and family, learn about her relationship with her boyfriend, see how she interacts with an older police officer (Thomas Jane) in charge of her mother's case... on a scene-by-scene basis, there's a lot of great stuff here, but very little of it hangs together naturally. The voiceovers and climax suggest that we're supposed to be taking the mystery seriously; the fact that it's not present at any other point in the film in a meaningful way suggests that we are not.

If White Bird in a Blizzard works - and I would argue that, by and large, it does...ish - it works because of star Shailene Woodley. Woodley has been making moves towards bigger roles with Divergent, as Jennifer Lawrence did with The Hunger Games, but Woodley is a more vulnerable, self-assured screen presence who feels far more comfortable anchoring a drama than trying to rein in an action movie. Kat is earthy, sensual, and lost, a role Woodley was born to play, and the movie comes alive when it starts to dig into her character.

If Woodley's earthy realism is one side of the coin that is White Bird's view on femininity, Eva Green - playing her mother - is the other. Eve is a disaffected housewife who married young and regretted it for the rest of her life, but never really knew how to free herself from the trap she made, and it's fascinating watching the struggle to balance her sexual needs with the expectations of a good housewife. Green is having a blast, giving the same sort of exaggerated performance that made her stand out so well in 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, but, well, White Bird in a Blizzard is not those movies. It has a stronger cast, a more assured aesthetic, so Green's exaggerated madness plays more as shrill than tortured, particularly when put against Woodley, or against her meek husband

It is the conflict between those two different performances that gives the film its charge... and, ultimately, tears it apart. Weird as it sounds, I have a hard time imagining a family setting in which the manic Eve, the grounded Kat, and the borderline-comatose Brock (Meloni) coexisted. I have a hard time imagining a universe where all three of them could coexist. Araki and his cast are walking a tightrope across a chasm of tonal whiplash, and I suspect every viewer will have a very different reaction to that attempt. But how much of this is filmed through a subjective camera - that is, how much of this is Kat exaggerating the traits of her family the way people sometimes will? 

Adapted from a 1999 novel by poet Laura Kasischke, White Bird in a Blizzard might be too mellow for the thriller crowd and too dark for the YA crowd. It lacks the gut-punch emotional power of last year's Woodley-starring young adult drama, The Spectacular Now, but I don't think Kasischke and Araki are really going for power here. In a way, White Bird in a Blizzard is at once a character study and an examination of evolving gender roles, both male and female, and I think a lot of the structural loopiness can be attributed to the fact that, on both fronts, this is undeniably Kat's movie. She's not a detective, not a hero; she's a young girl struggling to define her sexuality - not a topic we see often in stories about young women, though that's changing - while she copes with the loss of her mother. We may pick up on her mother's fate (indeed, the movie actively jokes about this), but it never bothered me to see Kat failing to notice the obvious clues.

I really struggled to write this review, if I'm being completely honest. White Bird in a Blizzard is a big, sloppy movie, alternately fun and dour, earthy and over-the-top. But, as I try to wrap all these thoughts up, I have to say: Whatever else White Bird in a Blizzard may be, it's not a movie easily forgotten - nor is it a movie lazily made. In the three weeks since I saw it, it has returned to my mind regularly as I puzzle over what Araki and Kasischke were trying to say. I still don't know they were successful in finding something to say or even if this is a terribly good movie, but I do know this: I'll be revisiting it again soon.

White Bird in a Blizzard opens today at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, Georgia, and is rolling out to limited theaters across the nation. It is also available to rent On Demand and on streaming services like Amazon Instant Video.
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