Shailene Woodley has already conquered the YA crowd with the double-hitter of the Divergent franchise and The Fault In Our Stars, so it’s somewhat surprising (but also thrilling) to see her expand into much darker, riskier territory with White Bird in a Blizzard.
In the ’80s-set indie drama, Mysterious Skin director Gregg Araki’s first serious offering since that 2004 stunner, the actress stars as Kat Connor, a teen whose sexual awakening arrives just as her aloof, unhinged mother Eve (Eva Green) vanishes into thin air. Fearlessly baring all, both physically in the uncommonly raw and real sex scenes, and dramatically throughout the often emotional narrative, Woodley is absolutely riveting here. It’s far and away her best work since The Descendants.
Of course, those hailing White Bird in a Blizzard as a return to great drama for the young actress would be working on a faulty assumption – the film was actually shot two years ago at this point, and Woodley is going to be bogged down by Divergent for at least three more movies. Araki’s film could be more aptly labeled as a bright bellwether of talent from its two then-rising leads, Woodley (who has become a certifiable Hollywood It Girl since), and Green (whose more recent performances in 300: Rise of an Empire and Penny Dreadful have catapulted her to much higher levels of stardom).
Though the story of White Bird in a Blizzard is something that, at least up until its surprising third act, we’ve all seen many times before, it’s the contrasting work of those two stars that really elevates the proceedings. As Kat, Woodley gives a powerful yet carefully nuanced performance, communicating her protagonist’s complicated struggles first as a rebellious teen trying to break away from her parents and then as a repressed woman subtly reeling from an unexpected loss. Watching her come to terms with her own damaged psyche is fascinating.
Green, on the other hand, doesn’t chew the scenery so much as unhinge her jaw and swallow it whole, python-style. Glowering like some sort of malevolent specter in her every scene, she sticks out like a sore thumb (a smart, deliberate choice on Araki’s part). When Eve sneers at Kat, looking up and down her lithe young body with undisguised jealousy, Green’s portrayal occasionally veers close to Mommie Dearest levels of camp. However, that seething theatricality ultimately serves to enhance Araki’s themes of suburban rot and the sourness inherent in every mismatched marriage.
Others enter the picture too, from Kat’s moronic stoner boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez, appropriately subdued), who’s equally weighed down by the expectations of the time, to her worryingly stifled father (Christopher Meloni, simply unnerving in an against-type role). Thomas Jane pops up too, doing much in his few scenes as a hardened cop rendered cold and brittle by his line of work.
Still, none of them distract from Woodley and Green, and rightly so. White Bird in a Blizzard is a tense mystery, an erotic coming-of-age story and a engrossing portrait of the late ’80s, but it’s first and foremost the story of a girl and her vanished mother, and the aftermath of their complex, suddenly severed relationship.
Araki skillfully toys with expectations with regard to how that relationship progresses, adding in some deliberate tropes (the story is partially framed by Kat’s lengthy discussion of her teen years with a therapist, uncreatively depicted by Angela Bassett, to name one) in order to successfully pull the rug out from under the audience in a genuinely shocking final twist. But even before that, White Bird in a Blizzard provides interesting food for thought about the search for personal identity that consumes every individual.
As one might expect from Araki, the symbolism-packed narrative plays out over some extremely striking visuals, from the white-out snowstorm Kat dreams of finding her mother in to the smoky, red and blue-lit floors of a local dance club. Start to finish, the film is a gorgeous watch, even if Araki does go a little too over the top in adorning his Los Angeles setting with big splashes of color and loud, tacky clothing that suggests a manufactured vibe closer to the ’50s.
The ethereal, enchanting look of White Bird in a Blizzard isn’t all that relates it to Araki’s oeuvre. The massive bait-and-switch he employs here is practically the director’s calling card at this point, and Araki continues to wrestle with familiar themes of sexual awakening, self-perception and the heavy tolls repression can take. The film’s treatment of teens, alternately too smart for their own good and so wrapped up in their own hormones that they might as well be blind, also rings true.
Additionally, like most of Araki’s works, White Bird in a Blizzard at first enchants with its glossy exterior, only to disturb once that surface is peeled off to reveal a dirtier, more sinister undercoating. But even when the film’s most unsettling secrets do come to light, Araki and his two stars cast such a mesmerizing spell that you won’t want to look away for a second.
With Woodley and Green nailing every note, and Araki infusing each beautifully shot scene with creeping menace, White Bird In A Blizzard's somewhat familiar story remains altogether mesmerizing.