In The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, Shailene Woodley plays kind, idealistic, but hardly naive young women who find actualization through romantic love. One of the more compelling things about Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard—which is now available to rent at Redbox stands after it failed to get a theatrical run here last fall—is how it plays with and against Woodley’s screen persona from those other films. Spectacular and Fault used Woodley to present an idealized version of middle-class, suburban adolescence. Her characters were literate, sensitive, self-aware, and ready to grow up. Her character in White Bird is none of these things, yet Araki exploits Woodley’s inherent sympathy so well that you might not realize it at first. The gradual revelation of the character’s awfulness is but one trick White Bird has up its sleeve.
The film begins in 1988, in an every-suburb reminiscent of John Hughes movies. In voice-over, Kat (Woodley) tells us that she was 17 when her mother vanished without a trace, which introduces a sense of doom to the picture-perfect setting. The opening scenes, in fact, seem to promise a mystery-thriller, as Kat’s father starts behaving suspiciously when the police investigate his wife’s disappearance. Yet the story, adapted more or less faithfully from a 1999 novel by Laura Kasischke, takes a different turn, charting Woodley’s descent into bad behavior during and after the investigation.
There’s a whole subgenre of coming-of-age stories in which the protagonist enters into recklessness as a sublimated response to some traumatic event. By contrast White Bird raises the possibility that Kat never needed an excuse. Even before her mother disappeared, we learn, she’d been having a purely sexual relationship with her neighbor, Phil, whom she generally treats with contempt. (Later on she’ll enter into a sexual relationship that’s even more irresponsible.) All she seems to do for fun is bad-mouth kids at school with her two friends, who seem to have no other interests either. In narration she confesses to years of pent-up resentment against both her mother, a self-hating housewife, and father, an ineffectual bureaucrat. Woodley is inspired in her recitation of Kasischke’s bilious prose, inverting the precocious charm of her earlier performances to convey disillusionment, even malice.
“I feel like a bad actress playing myself,” Woodley confesses in voiceover during a scene at her therapist’s office, and Araki, for his part, creates a world where everything looks phony. The director of The Doom Generation and Nowhere is no stranger to kitsch, and White Bird is full of it. Araki and set decorator Ryan Watson make room for seemingly every bad idea in late-80s home decor, and Mairi Chisholm’s costume design is comparably exhaustive. Much of the casting is deliberately perverse. Barely trying to disguise her French accent, Eva Green plays the mother, a woman ten years her senior. Gabourey Sidibe plays one of Woodley’s mean-girl friends in a stridently unusual manner one would expect from an actress discovered by Lee Daniels. And though Christopher Meloni is uncommonly tender as Woodley’s father, he’s forced to give his performance beneath a hideous fake mustache.
Araki claims to have taken inspiration for the film’s production design from Douglas Sirk’s suburban melodramas of the 1950s. Though the hyperbolic sets look more like a fusion of David Lynch and John Waters, one can understand what Araki means. Sirk directed Bertolt Brecht plays when he worked in German theater, and in some of his movies the mise-en-scene serves to comment (in Brechtian fashion) on how the characters relate to the society they inhabit. The suburban settings of White Bird seem practically buried under materialist excess—not unlike Kat’s mother, who’s often shown in flashbacks slaving miserably over her housework. Ultimately the movie’s all about keeping up with appearances. Kat comes to worry less about whether she’s grieving for her mother’s loss properly than whether she seems like she’s grieving properly.
“Scratch the surface and there’s only more surface,” Kat says of her father at one point, but she might as well be speaking for herself. White Bird follows the character as she plunges into the depths of her being—in search of buried memories, if not remorse or compassion—and finds that she hasn’t gone very far. (In this regard, the dark revelations of the movie’s final act feel purposely anticlimactic.) The movie suggests that Kat isn’t remarkable in her shallowness. Rather, she’s simply a product of her selfish, consumerist environment, unaccustomed to genuine feeling.