White Lie Review [TIFF 2019]
Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl) is sick. But the variance between the illness she’s allowed everyone to realize and that which is actually true is almost too great to bear. Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’ White Lie thrillingly weaves through every inch of Katie’s operation, dissecting her monstrous smile while simultaneously obliterating our capacity for and perception of belief.
Airlifted far beyond the ground floor of her sting, we’re introduced to Katie as a local celebrity. Walking around the campus of her Ontario-based university, fellow students stop her to pose for pictures, and fundraising efforts see her face, figure, and corresponding hashtags plastered all over. A strangely urgent phone call and a menacingly chaotic score – courtesy of frequent collaborator Lev Lewis – provide us our first inclinations of foul play, and the proceeding 90 minutes are all dedicated towards Katie’s straggling efforts to uphold the lie that she’s been diagnosed with cancer.
Tampering with our conceptions of trust and empathy, White Lie breeds a confusingly rich experience. Katie, who regularly shaves her head and takes drugs to stimulate weight loss, bears the pinnacle of an honest-looking face. As is the case for most of the people around her, her’s is one of those stories that is too tragic to fabricate, too heartbreaking, or awkward, to question, and therefore, too easy to validate. This victim role has given Katie thousands of dollars of doubtless cash, a luxury she can’t afford to lose.
Of course, this isn’t something she can do all on her own. Knowingly woven into her network of deceivers are a pharmacy lab assistant (Connor Jessup), and a financially needy doctor (Thomas Olajide) who both complete parts of the narrative and require constant buyouts for their silence. But there are also a fair number of blind conspirators – most tragically, her loving and faithful girlfriend, Jennifer (Amber Anderson) – who do their part as well.
There’s an evil level of fabrication at play throughout White Lie, which quickly blossoms into a psychological, satirical thriller. Not only is there the cavalcade of quick excuses and reasons that Katie constantly uses to squirm out of danger, but there’s also the viewer’s tousling relationship with her to consider. The script, which Lewis and Thomas also wrote, flips this warped situation on its head. While they never let her deeds slip into the trusses of moral redemption, the directors still manage to create and upkeep an atmosphere and pacing of urgency around her desperation.
But the fact that audiences won’t gag at the sight of such a malevolent being must also be attributed to Rohl, who tears the film apart and traps our attention in a magnificently methodical manner. She summons an aura of eeriness around this sinful scam, and with each layered lie, adds another vindictive cloud over the sociopath breathing and evolving in front of our eyes. While Katie doesn’t quite understand the repercussions of her decisions – she thinks it bobs along the same moral low ground as faking your grandmother’s death, and in comparison, it’s hardly the worst act a sociopath’s committed on the screen – by the time White Lie has ended, the young woman’s so far shadowed in her falsehoods that she ranks among the more appalling characters in recent memory.
And what Katie’s deceptions also bring into the limelight is the avenue social media provides such sorts of fabrications to manifest and grow. In a time when both popularity and notoriety can each be sparked with a few clicks of a button – and can just as easily be influenced by some form of manipulation – the combative stance Lewis and Thomas take against these platforms reaches far beyond refreshing.
While White Lie, which also puts victim-shaming into practice at several points, may take too strong of a position for some, the pressing question of blind validation at its core is too important to pass up.
As a timely testament to our willingness to validate and support rather than investigate, White Lie is both insightful and terrifying.