Colorful imagery & awesome '80s music can't make up for pitiful character arcs in this teen angst melodrama.
White Bird in a Blizzard
While watching Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard I had the silly thought that the experience seemed similar to what it might be like to watch someone put on a two-hour theatrical using a doll house and brightly costumed dolls. In the same way a child playing with dolls is apt to exaggerate movements and voices to animate soulless toys, so do the performances and tableau of the film feel embellished and dream-like.
Shailene Woodley plays Kat Connor, a teenager deep in the throes of sexual awakening and exploration. Her mother Eve (Eva Green) disappears when Kat is 17, failing to return from the grocery store one day. Through flashback, Eve’s emotional decline is evident in her interaction with her husband Brock (Christopher Meloni) and her seething disdain for his every loving sentence, action, and breath. Leading up to her disappearance, Eve’s interactions with Kat — especially when her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) is present — get more and more vindictive. Strutting about in mini skirts and waking Kat in the night to slut shame her only scratch the surface of her paranoia and desperation in her housewife life.
After Eve disappears, Kat and Brock find their way through life. Kat goes to therapy to discuss her feelings and, more often, lack of feelings about her mother’s displaced status. She goes to college. She dates new boys. She takes up smoking. It isn’t until she visits home during a school break, checking in with her old friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato) and meeting her dad’s new girlfriend, that a conversation with now ex, Phil, causes her to question everything she thought she understood around her mother’s disappearance. Revelations that casts every relationship she has into question.
To think of White Bird in a Blizzard as a mystery would be mostly inaccurate. Mystery implies suspicion, and until very late in the film, there is none of that. Even the temptation to classify it as a character study feels wrong, as everyone is clearly filtered through Kat’s immature and narrow-sighted purview. In her eyes her mother is a drama queen, her father is a coward, Phil is a disposable sex toy, and Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane) isn’t important for his work on her mother’s case, but instead as an example of the raw manly sexual ideal Kat’s decided is most attractive. And all of this would work just fine if the film’s ending didn’t throw real emotional revelations into the mix and expect us to accept them despite having spent all our time in a dream world until then.
As for performances, Eva Green and Christopher Meloni play their doll house roles with amazing style and energy. At first almost Stepford wife scary, Eve is robotic with her mannerisms and sharp in her candor. It starts out as off-putting and by the end is absolutely entrancing. Similarly as Kat’s idea of a wimp, Brock literally slumps his shoulders, hands hanging aloof at his sides, his every sentence exuding the cluelessness of a man trying to make sense of the marriage that’s crumbling in front of him and a daughter he holds little connection to. It’s almost hard to watch. Both deserve accolade, but Woodley’s Kat shows little signs of maturation despite the passage of time or the intensity of the truths she discovers by the end of the film, though I will hand it to her, she has teenage rebellion down pat.
Her lack of development may be due in part to what is clearly the film’s biggest failing, and that is the rushed ending. It’s possible the novel the film is based on spent a similarly short amount of time on the plot’s twists, but certainly its slower format in general must have given its readers more chance to process the information they are given. In the film, the editing fails by focusing on the wrong things, not allowing us enough growth with Kat to feel the impact of her self-revelations. It’s hard not to want her to care more about her life, though to give the film due credit, it well reflects the selfish preoccupation teenagers have in prioritizing their lives according to their daily dramas.
Another badge Gregg Araki deserves is in the perfectly curated music of the film and a great score from Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie. Full of great ’80s fare it’s worth staying through the end credits to create a playlist from the offerings, including Cocteau Twins, The Psychedelic Furs, and New Order. The art direction is equally enthralling — a well-crafted picture of the ’80s with a touch of ’50s sensibility.
Many beautiful elements and strong performances make White Bird in a Blizzard a stimulating watch, but its utter lack of real emotion do great injustice to the cruelty of loss and the very real emotions flooding through the average teenager at any given second. Kat’s only passion seems to be sexual, giving her an impractical flatness on which the entire film falls. Araki, known for reveling in unpleasant material in earlier films such as Mysterious Skin, manages to direct all discomfort into watching each characters’ overblown identity play out on-screen, while rushing past the hairy exposition without allowing it some influence. It’s just too hard to care for the story endings of dolls.