White Girl – the new film from writer/director Elizabeth Wood, making her feature debut – is the kind of movie that is so inextricably indie in its scope, subject matter and sensibility that it will almost certainly inspire divisive reactions among moviegoers. Sure, the more “high-minded” members of the critical community may label it as provocative and brimming with incisive social commentary, but more mainstream individuals who choose to spend their 88 minutes checking out this new film may emerge from the theater wondering what all the fuss is about.
Loosely based on Wood’s own experiences, White Girl centers on a college student name Leah (Morgan Saylor) who quickly gets involved with local drug dealer Blue (Brian Marc) upon moving into a new neighborhood with her friend Katie (India Menuez). However, when a night of hard partying catches up with the group, Leah finds herself in way over her head and scrambling to protect her newfound bond with Blue. Justin Bartha and Chris Noth, both of whom are fine in their respective roles, offer the meatiest supporting turns as Leah’s repulsive boss and the attorney she turns to for help, respectively.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the lead character in White Girl is morally bereft from the start. Cocaine, casual sex and other kinds of substance abuse take center stage in several extended sequences throughout the film, seemingly to highlight the self-destructive path that adolescents can find themselves on in this critical stage of life. Yet, White Girl never truly works as a cautionary tale simply because it over-emphasizes the predatory nature of the world around Leah. Because the film demonstrates little interest in a counterpoint to the excess and debauchery, its point get lost in the shuffle and is largely robbed of its impact. Viewers are entirely excused if they wind up tuning out Leah’s behavior by film’s end.
Instead of developing the emotional complexity of Leah’s situation, White Girl goes for the simplest form of shock value, and at times, the film feels like it’s a parody of this particular brand of coming-of-age indie drama. That said, elements of its story do make a valiant effort to subvert stereotypes, and there’s a very (intentionally) disturbing element of its story that hinges heavily on the objectification that young women find themselves the target of. Even the play on words inherent in the film’s title (a slang term for cocaine) hints at a greater ambition behind the project than what the final product conveys.
Saylor – best known for her role on Homeland – delivers a strong performance throughout, shouldering the narrative in every single scene, but Marc may truly be the real discovery here. While the protagonist of White Girl feels very much like a character ripped straight from an indie film, Marc doesn’t even play Blue like he’s a character. He simply and effectively embodies the role with the confidence and naturalistic charm that elevate the material in a way that nearly no one else in the film truly does. No wonder the actor is popping up more and more this year, including current thriller Nerve and this month’s new Marvel and Netflix series Luke Cage.
Speaking of Marvel, Wood was linked to the open directorial slot for Captain Marvel a few months back, following White Girl‘s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. More recently, she has faded out of the conversation over which female director will bring Brie Larson’s titular hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet, her directorial debut – despite its script issues – is a testament to her budding strength as an emerging talent, one that could likely to be able to create something truly unforgettable with the right material. White Girl simply wasn’t that project.
Ostensibly a tragic tale of out-of-control youth, White Girl collapses under its lofty ambitions, boiling down to little more than a retread of other, better films.