by Kathie Smith
From its very first moments, White Bird in a Blizzard submerges us in a dream-pop atmosphere delightfully tinged with both mystery and danger. Led by the sounds of the Cocteau Twins, we are introduced to Kat (Shailene Woodley) as she comes home to find her mother, Eve (Eva Green), one step closer to coming unhinged. Dressed to the nines, her mom is curled up on Kat’s bed in a catatonic fog of housewife syndrome, robotically getting up to fix dinner. Shortly after, instead of continuing a descent into madness, Kat’s mother quite suddenly, yet maybe not surprisingly, disappears. The hole left by her mother, a space that was already vacant in Kat’s life, becomes filled with the unresolved mystery of Eve’s discontent as well as her whereabouts, churned by the push-pull anxiety-apathy of being a teenager.
Director: Gregg Araki
Producers: Gregg Araki, Pascal Caucheteux, Pavlina Hatoupis, Sebastien Lemercier, Alix Madigan
Writers: Gregg Araki, Laura Kasischke
Cinematographer: Sandra Valde-Hansen
Music: Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Angela Bassett, Thomas Jane, Gabourey Sidibe, Mark Indelicato, Sheryl Lee, Dale Dickey
Premiere: January 20, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 24, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Chronicling two bookends in Kat’s life—1988, when Kat’s mother vanishes, and 1991, when her need for closure boils over to a tragic end--White Bird pillows this somber and somewhat tawdry coming-of-age story with a haze antidepressants, bitter-sweet nostalgia, and fairy-dust dreams serving as prophetic nightmares. Director Gregg Araki has always had a flair for wistful snapshots of rebellious youth, displayed most notably in his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy--Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997)—with profound measures of chaos and melancholy. But in the case of White Bird in a Blizzard, which shares a general tenor with his film Mysterious Skin (only with a female lead), Araki goes into uncharted territory of aesthetic bliss, framing each scene with calibrated symmetry of soft color and falling snow.
Like many characters in Araki’s movies, Kat is no fragile dove but rather a very self-aware 17-year-old. She aligns herself as an outcast, despite looking the part of the popular girl, with friends Mickey (Mark Indelicato), who happens to be gay, and Beth (Gabourey Sidibe), who happens to be black and overweight. Her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) is an unmotivated stoner who succeeds at nothing more than getting puns wrong and in satisfying Kat’s sexual needs. After her mom goes silently AWOL, both her father (Christopher Meloni) and Phil retreat from Kat as if repelled by her disinterest in her mother’s absence. Left to vent her emotional dispassions with a therapist (Angela Bassett)—including analyzing beautifully realized snow-white dreams of her mother in distress—Kat seeks a physical release with the studly detective working on her mother’s disappearance case.
Eve’s dissatisfaction with her husband and jealousy of her soon-to-be-adult daughter is explored through flashback narrated by Kat. Woodley hits the bull’s-eye with her mixture of tough vulnerability, withdrawn ennui, and repressed anger; she has a good match in Green playing a familiar but effective evil vixen, this time housebound with crushed visions of an American dream. Her Eve is not so much a villain as a victim who we assume, like Julianne Moore’s sad Laura Brown in The Hours, had to escape the oppression of familial bliss gone wrong. (Compare it to Gone Girl if you’d like, but Araki molds his characters out of flesh and passion—a far cry from the clinical devices of Fincher.) The scenes between Woodley and Green have a spark that emits layers to their characters in stark contrast to the placid surfaces of the supporting cast.
White Bird rapturously floats through this story of teen angst, invoking the 80s in name alone and a little window dressing. Fashion and style strike a contemporary pose as does Woodley, unable to shake her millennial aura. But the time frame seems as symbolic as Kat’s This Mortal Coil t-shirt or the Eraserhead poster hanging in the record store. Blame it on a recent upheaval of Twin Peaks devotion (with the release of the Blu-ray set and reports of its return), but White Bird feels connected to the hip of Twin Peaks even before Sheryl Lee (better known as Laura Palmer) shows up in the cast as the new girlfriend of Kat’s father. Revisiting the series and Fire Walk With Me exposed a powerful undercurrent of melancholy that had somehow evaded me on their original releases—the heartache of growing up and facing an inevitable loss of innocence in a surreal powder keg. Araki makes a valid attempt to tap into this slow dive into the depths of a coming-of-age tragedy, symbolically and emotionally.
With no clues to where Kat’s mother went, the movie flashes forward 3 years to find Kat at Berkeley still burdened by what happened. The intensified need for answers starts to lift a subconscious veil for Kat, and on returning home for vacation, she sees her father in a new light, partially due to suggestion and partially due to how her father treats his new girlfriend. Being aloof, at least for Kat, is part of being a teenager while being an adult is about facing your various demons. Unfortunately, White Bird quickly turns a corner on a moody character study and transitions to something that resembles a thriller, hopelessly devoted to tying up loose ends. And no matter how much that resolution comes as a surprise, it betrays a more subtle design at work with both character and narrative. Known for being loose canon, Araki hasn’t had much practice pulling in the reins, but for more than half of this movie—in what feels like a new direction—he nearly perfects it.