White Bird in a Blizzard

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White Bird in a Blizzard is basically three different movies: a portrait of a failed marriage, a (murder?) mystery and an examination of a teenage girl's sexual awakening. All of these are meant to be part of the same movie, but the tone and quality shifts so frequently from plot strand to plot strand that the whole thing feels disjointed. The best scenes are tremendous (the film was directed by Gregg Araki, who gave us the great Mysterious Skin ten years earlier), but the film frequently demonstrates a surprising (and disappointing) lack of trust in its audience.

The story begins in the fall of 1988, as 17-year-old Katrina “Kat” Connors (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) is going through a difficult period in her life. A while back she lost her virginity to a dim-witted but good-natured boy named Phil (Shiloh Fernandez, Red Riding Hood), but recently she has grown frustrated with his unwillingness to satisfy her sexual needs. She also has an incredibly strained relationship with her mother Eve (Eva Green, Penny Dreadful), who in turn has an incredibly strained relationship with Kat's father Brock (Christopher Meloni, Man of Steel). To make things worse, Kat begins to suspect that her mother may be attempting to seduce Phil. Then, Eve vanishes without a trace.

Quite a few of Araki's films have dealt with the complications of teenage sexuality, and here he attempts to demonstrate the way Kat's raging hormones may be interfering with her ability to see the world clearly. She's had just enough of sex to know that she likes a great deal, but the subject occupies her mind to an often-overwhelming degree (“I just wanna f---!” she complains). After her mother disappears, she seems less concerned with whether something serious has happened than with whether or not she should seduce the middle-aged police detective (an excellent Thomas Jane, The Punisher) in charge of the investigation.

That material has its moments, but I was never quite sold on the notion that a bright young girl could be quite so oblivious to her surroundings as a result of something as simple as an active sex drive. Of course, there are moments in life when we look back and think, “Wow, how could I not have seen that?” Later in the movie, there are scenes set in 1991 which feature Kat doing exactly that, but is the change that occurs between the ages of 17 and 20 quite that sharp? Maybe. It's been a few years since I was either. Even if you buy it, this portion of the film is burdened by the inclusion of two blandly-written “best friend” characters (played by Gabourey Sidibe, Tower Heist and Mark Indelicato, Ugly Betty) and the film's often-maddening need to explain everything we're seeing. Woodley provides the sort of narration that reminds you of why most movies don't actually need narration; explaining things that will be immediately obvious to those who are paying even a little bit of attention. “She was tall, stunning, like a movie star,” Kat says of her mother as we see Eva Green enter the frame.

White Bird in a Blizzard is a mess as a coming-of-age movie (and the police investigation around Eve's disappearance fizzles out in underwhelming fashion), but its portrait of the turbulent relationship between Kat's parents is gripping. The relationship went south quickly, but they never divorced. Instead, they now wallow in the rotting corpse of their romance. Brock is sad, beaten-down and sexually frustrated. Eve is bored, resentful and sexually-frustrated. Both make confessions to Kat: “I've never loved your father” and “I don't think your mother has ever loved me.” Meloni and Green's performances are wildly different (he's low-key and naturalistic, she's boisterous and campy), but that only accentuates their profound disconnect. Their final scene together is something close to a waking nightmare.

I can't quite recommend recommend the film, but I wouldn't discourage you from seeing it, either. There are self-contained sequences with real power, and Green's performance in particular leaves a strong impression in the way it (theatrically, but effectively) captures the burning rage of a woman who feels trapped by societal norms. There's also a handful of striking visual touches (using soft imagery in to convey a sort of fractured fairy tale tone in flashback sequences) and some great period-specific music (The Cure, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees). In broader strokes, however, the movie feels confused and insecure, making too many bids to reach out to mainstream audiences and never turning Kat's complicated three-year journey into something resonant. An interesting misfire.


White Bird in a Blizzard

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2014