Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Welcome to the Angst-house: "White Bird in a Blizzard" charged by haunting mood and performances

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)
91 min., rated R.

Independent writer-director Gregg Araki's "White Bird in a Blizzard" almost feels like a Todd Solondz film. For those unfamiliar, Solondz's entire filmography has been spent critiquing and slightly satirizing suburbia as a bitter, scabrous hell. Araki's latest, a coming-of-age teen mystery/family drama, still has a few of the filmmaker's hallmarks from his "Teenage Apocalypse" trilogy—teen sex, societal outsiders, a "what-the-hell" attitude among disaffected teens—as well as a dreamlike, impressionistic weirdness. If 2005's "Mysterious Skin" was his most grown-up film and 2011's offbeat, defiantly rudderless oddity "Kaboom" had him boomaranging back to old times, then "White Bird in a Blizzard" might be Araki's most accessible—this is relative—and yet it's still transgressive and quite haunting. And, for star Shailene Woodley, this is definitely her most adult role, considering she started on ABC Family's after-school soap "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."

Based on the 1999 novel by Laura Kasischke, which Araki has adapted for the screen, the film transplants from Ohio to the suburbs of Loma Linda, California. The narrative timeline sprawls from 1988 to 1991, centering on the growth of jaded, restless 17-year-old Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) before and after the disappearance of her mother, Eve (Eva Green), a sexually repressed homemaker. When Kat returns home from school one day, nebbish, starchy father Brock (Christopher Meloni) is immediately concerned, while she indifferently reassures him that she will be back. For now, Kat is unfazed and relieved, as she just wants to have sex with her not-so-bright stoner boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and tell her two sassy best friends, Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mark Indelicato), all about it. It is not until the spring of 1991 when Kat returns home for break from college that she will no longer be left in the dark about her mother.

Vividly shot and evocatively scored with '80s pop songs like many an Araki film, "White Bird in a Blizzard" is a compelling arrangement of a mystery and a coming-of-ager. It sets up Eve's disappearance as the focus and then puts it on the back burner, but her presence continually haunts the proceedings as we follow Kat in her journey into maturity and out of denial. When she gets tired of boy-next-door Phil, Kat shifts her attention to the cop assigned to her mother's case, Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), and seduces him because she can. Through Kat's flowery voice-over and flashbacks within the sit-down scenes between Kat and her therapist (Angela Bassett), we learn why Eve might have left. She is practically jealous of her daughter's adventurous youth and misses that freedom in her dull marriage. As demonstrated in a telling scene where Eve gawks at Kat getting gussied up in front of her bedroom mirror, it's as if the daughter is who the mother always wanted to be.

Breaking free and delving into an absolute rawness, Shailene Woodley is proof of working well in a YA-targeted franchise (one for them, as in the major studios) and taking risks by making edgy, more mature choices in her projects (one for her). Sometimes, it is hard to understand what makes Kat tick, and fans will probably be shocked to see her in a couple of nude scenes and playing an often bratty teenager, but there is a poignancy to Woodley's performance. It's almost startling to see Eva Green in a domestic, real-world role after baring her breasts and trapping men as femme fatales this year in both sequel/prequels "300: Rise of an Empire" and "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." Even one step away from being June Cleaver by way of Bette Davis, Green comes with an edge as Eve, who cannot keep her '50s-housewife-style composure anymore. It's a finely honed performance of unhinged wickedness, lonely sadness, and even mental illness. As dopey boyfriend Phil who lives with his blind mother (Dale Dickey), Shiloh Fernandez has a mysterious, dark-and-stormy quality that of Rufus Sewell but a sense of humor when playing a sex-crazed dunce. 

There's a bit of a "Twin Peaks" vibe to "White Bird in a Blizzard"—Sheryl Lee, who played Laura Palmer in the long-running series, even appears as Brock Connor's new girlfriend—but a great deal of feeling and teenage angst charges most of the film, too. Once we do realize what has happened to Eve, it's slightly less shocking than a loopy reveal that kind of comes out of nowhere. Punctuating its dreamlike mood, there are many title-appropriate dream sequences, in which a dressed-in-white Kat goes looking for her mother in a snowy white-out. In toto, "White Bird in a Blizzard" is a strange and sometimes aloof film, but it's also a spectacularly acted and heady one that ends up packing an aching, lingering punch the longer the viewer gets away from it.


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