Sunday, September 28, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard

Grade: 50/C+

Ten years ago, New Queer Cinema enfant terrible Gregg Araki made a major creative leap forward with Mysterious Skin, a melancholy examination of how people process childhood traumas (sexual abuse, in this case) headlined by a career-making performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Araki’s new film White Bird in a Blizzard sees him back in Mysterious Skin mode after the amiable stoner comedy Smiley Face and the wild end-of-the-world meets orgy movie Kaboom. But Araki’s latest doesn’t have half the power of his earlier film, as his desire to be clever works against its more sincere elements.

The film shares one major asset with Mysterious Skin in its terrific central performance, this one by Shailene Woodley. The Fault in Our Stars actress stars as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mentally unstable mother (Eva Green) disappears one year just as she first becomes sexually active. Kat spends the next several years living with her father (Christopher Meloni) and exploring her sexuality with her stoner boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez) and the cop investigating her mother’s disappearance (Thomas Jane). But over time, she begins to suspect things about her mother’s disappearance that everyone around her has already guessed.

As Kat, Woodley strikes the same balance between brazen self-confidence and vulnerability that Gordon-Levitt had. Kat is assertive, even demanding sexually, and speaks freely and happily about her own adventurousness with her friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Mark Indelicato); Araki’s sex-positive outlook is refreshing here, considering how easily the sex-as-escape narrative can fall into sensationalism. She’s equally assured when dealing with the painful truths of her mother’s disappearance, particularly in her scenes with Meloni (excellent in a tricky role that requires him to be both sweetly soft-spoken and potentially threatening).

Araki, for his part, uses the same lush, soft-focus aesthetic here that he used so effectively in Mysterious Skin, making Woodley’s self-discovery as blissful as her other discoveries are confusing and painful. He pairs that, as in the earlier film, with a dream pop, post-punk and shoegaze heavy soundtrack that compliments his dreamy images. Some of Araki’s song choices are too on-the-nose (filmmakers: please do not use New Order’s “Temptation” in a movie ever again), but at their best (Cocteau Twins’ “Sea Swallow Me”) they perfectly soundtrack Woodley’s youthful confusion. Whenever Araki deals directly with Woodley’s experience, White Bird in a Blizzard is effective.

The trouble is that Araki’s can’t totally drop his taste for the outrageous for what’s a fundamentally earnest story. In the flashbacks involving Green, she’s less a flesh-and-blood person and more a camped up version of a depressed and sexually frustrated housewife, frequently reaching Mommie Dearest volumes. Green is good at what she’s being asked to do, but she feels like she’s in a completely different movie. Araki’s tonal shifts are inelegant and awkward, and it turns what’s ostensibly an exaggerated memory of a person into a stilted parody of mental illness.

The film’s tonal inconsistencies might be easier to swallow if they didn’t feel so obvious in their objective. Both the truth of Green’s disappearance and the circumstances behind it become painfully clear early in the film. This isn’t an issue by itself – Araki is making a point about how teenage experiences blind us the experiences of those around us – but the hysterical pitch of the flashbacks and of Green’s behavior are such a blatant red herring that their artificiality first distracts from Woodley and Meloni’s pain, then actively annoys, then undermines the film’s emotional conclusion. White Bird in a Blizzard might be less disappointing had Araki not made a thematically similar, less show-offy version of this film earlier in his career. As it is, it’s half moving, half deeply frustrating, and the latter wins the day.

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