'White Bird In A Blizzard' Is A Dreamy Noir Mystery That Unfolds Like A Teen Drama
On the surface, White Bird in a Blizzard appears to be a noir mystery set in a sleepy SoCal suburb, but as the film unfolds it reveals a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl. It's tough to seamlessly weave those stories together—the film's narrative has its shaky moments—but we're still drawn to the familiar, nostalgic tale of a teen's journey into adulthood.
In indie writer-director Gregg Araki's (Mysterious Skin) film based off of Laura Kasischke's 1999 novel with the same name, we follow Kat Conner (Shailene Woodley), a rebellious teen on the cusp of her sexual awakening in the late 1980s. Her mother, Eve Conner (Eva Green) mysteriously vanishes from their home when Kat is 17. Kat is unfazed and believes her mother, who hated her life in suburban hell, left the family for a better situation. Kat's meek, hapless father Brock Conner (Christopher Meloni) is left defeated and in shock. But people in Kat's life aren't quite convinced that her mother would just up and leave—and thus, the mystery slowly unfolds.
We're viewing these event through Kat's psyche, so her teen drama—and not Eve's disappearance—becomes the main focus of Araki's film. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, through Kat's talks with her therapist (Angela Bassett), and through her dreams where she is wearing all white in a blizzard while encountering her missing mother with a sense of foreboding. We're transported to the '80s, with Kat wearing a Depeche Mode nightshirt, going to new wave clubs with crimped hair and black-laced gloves. Her sharp-tongued besties (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato) joke with her about banging older dudes and about how much they hate everything—they're loveable, angsty misfits.
As with other Araki films, this one also has a killer soundtrack that stood out, with moody tracks encapsulating that time from Joy Division to The Cure; even Cocteau Twins' guitarist Robin Guthrie co-wrote the ethereal music to complement the film. However, at times, the problem with making it such a period piece felt forced and a little over-the-top, with the tracks distracting from the film, playing one right after another.
Although Kat shares some similarities with Woodley's other roles, like being a strong-willed teen in The Fault in Our Stars or Divergent, it's a departure from her good girl image to see her in such a sexual one. She tells her dim-witted, Joaquin Phoenix-lookalike boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez)—who says things like "It's a vicious circus" or "Cut me some slacks"—things like "I miss fucking you." She has trysts with the much older (and very scruffy) Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), who's investigating her mother's disappearance. At first, it feels out of place for Woodley, but after a bit, we start believing she belongs in this role. She slowly lets her tough exterior melt away and opens herself up to moments of fragility—and that's something that drew us deeper into the movie.
However, miscast is the beautiful Green. Eve hates her life; she's a homemaker who spends her time making dishes like crab thermidor. But the way she dresses and acts feels like she's stuck in the 1950s; throwing that old-timey vibe into a period piece about the 1980s just doesn't work and feels hokey. She's a drunk who sends icy glares towards her husband and daughter whom she feels nothing but contempt for, and her antics just come off as campy. And although we noticed in the end credits of the film that the French Green had a dialect coach, she wasn't totally able to drop her accent. It was distracting and made us wonder, "Where is she from? Is she supposed to be American?"
The story meanders as we explore Kat's life as she gets older and goes to college, and as we get closer to the truth about what happened to her mother, things get interesting. There are also moments that leave us feeling unsettled and drawn in, like her first uncomfortable sexual advances with Detective Scieziesciez to her heartbreaking, intimate talks with Phil towards the end of the film. Although not everything melds together perfectly, we do applaud Araki's ability to put us in a dreamy state and then shake us up with something disturbing.
White Bird in a Blizzard opens in theaters today.