The 400-Word Review: White Bird in a Blizzard
By Sean Collier
November 20, 2014
White Bird in a Blizzard is the first film I’ve encountered by the independent filmmaker Gregg Araki. The director (and often screenwriter), notable for advancing the nascent genre of queer cinema in the 1980s and ’90s, is known to provoke a wide range of reactions; Roger Ebert called one of his films, The Doom Generation, a “disgusting, disturbing movie about characters of low intelligence and little personal worth,” and another, Mysterious Skin, “at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse.”
And after White Bird in a Blizzard, I’m not surprised that Araki is a filmmaker likely to divide opinion. I’m at once simultaneously repulsed, bewildered, charmed and intrigued by this film.
Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) tells us a story: When she was 17, her mother (Eva Green) started acting weird and drinking heavily, then disappeared without a trace. Finding little solace from her ineffectual father (Christopher Meloni), she drifts emotionlessly between sexual relationships before taking off for Berkeley. On her first visit home, however, more than one person asks questions Kat never bothered to consider about her mother’s disappearance.
While the story is surprisingly taut, the dialogue is uneven; Araki seems to be striving to create a Lynchian suburban dystopia (he even brings in Sheryl Lee, the once and future Laura Palmer, to nod strongly toward “Twin Peaks”), but can’t manage to keep the tone consistent. And while the real-world scenes are intriguingly composed and often thrillingly sinister, frequent diversions into dream sequences and overplayed flashbacks are clumsy at best.
And yet, there’s something oddly compelling about White Bird in a Blizzard. Most of it revolves around Woodley, as the current it-girl is as delightful to watch in a down-and-dirty indie as she is in a polished studio production; she’s helped by a truly memorable supporting cast that also includes Angela Bassett, Shiloh Fernandez and Gabourey Sidibe, all doing fine work.
But more than that, White Bird’s awkward muddiness seems somehow earnest. The darkness lurking beneath white-picket splendor is its own well-trod genre, but Araki freshens it by layering a kind of over-the-top fantasy element onto the story. And, to give perhaps too much credit to a deeply flawed film, that may well be the point; domestic mysteries can be among the grimiest, the most nonsensical, the most wrought with emotion. It’s a mess, to be sure, but a forgivable one.
My Rating: 6/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark