White Bird in a Blizzard

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/14 15:53:37

"Does many things well but leaves me cold."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I saw "White Bird in a Blizzard" referred to as a coming of age movie, and I don't necessarily think that designation fits. Not every drama where the characters haven't graduated from high school yet needs that label; sometimes bad things just happen when teenagers are around. That's sort of what happens here, and it's why a movie that's very strong in some ways, but is oddly hands-off enough in others that it's not quite as good as the surface suggests it should be.

It centers around Katrina "Kat" Connor (Shailene Woodley), a pretty teenager who comes home one day to find her father (Christopher Meloni) in the kitchen while her mother Eve (Eva Green) has vanished without a trace. The investigating detective (Thomas Jane) can't figure the case out and her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) seems less anxious to sleep with her, leaving Kat to ponder how her mother always seemed to view her father with contempt and had gone from doting to seemingly envious ever since she went through puberty.

In many ways, White Bird is less Kat's story than it is Eve's told from Kat's obviously incomplete perspective, and it's certainly interesting seen that way: Screenwriter/director Gregg Araki (working from a book by Laura Kasischke) heightens everything about this relationship, to how perfect and extraordinary Eve sees to the younger Kat to the bitter, jealous mess she became later. Eva Green's performance is kind of amazing in how it aligns itself with this; she's imperious, larger than life, and kind of not realistic at all, but it's no trouble believing that this is exactly how she exists in Kat's memory.

Seeing everything filtered through Kat's perspective means spending a lot of time in the head of this particular girl, though, and it's as egocentric a point of view as you'll find. It's impressive, in a way, that one can feel the fairly misplaced certainty emanating from every minute of the flick, but it also means being exposed to a lot of authentically teenaged narration in the first half. Like most of us, Kat isn't nearly as well-spoken and commanding of the language as she thinks she is at seventeen, and the narration is just as cringe-worthy in much of the first half as one might imagine, especially when Kat thinks she's above or better than something in some way.

That the audience occasionally groans or shakes its head at Kat should in no way be held against Shailene Woodley; she's as strong as usual. While her characters' words are often kind of hollow, her face is great at indicating whether her confidence in a scene is a screen or something she genuinely feels, even if it's because she doesn't know any better. The moments when she has wheels turning or breaks down are all the more impactful for it. There's a wealth of great support around her and Green, particularly in how Christopher Meloni transforms Brock Connor from the weak joke Eve and by extension Kat perceive him as to someone with a bit more confidence later. It also doesn't hurt one bit to load smaller parts up with the likes of Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Dale Dickey, Thomas Jane, and Angela Bassett.

Araki and his crew build a great-looking movie, too - the bulk of the action is set in 1988, and the look is period-indulgent in a good way; it amplifies Kat's and Eve's worlds rather than trying to provoke nostalgia or cheap laughs. The dream sequences are a bright, pure white, and tend to resonate even as characters say within the film that dreams don't necessarily mean anything.

Another thing characters say is to describe another character as the type where scratching the surface yields more surface, and there are times when the movie feels that way, too. A lot of important moments happen off-screen, there's a twist or two that seem to be there for the purpose of having a twist at a pivotal moment. It also seems to take a little too much effort to crack Kat's surface and push her forward at times; she spends so much of the movie in the same place, even around Eve's disappearance, and it makes her late attitude shifts a little tough to swallow even as they make perfect sense. Araki seems to misjudge the amount to pull back and show a little more than Kat's perspective to the movie's detriment.

And that's kind of a big hit for the movie; as much as I recommend it for the numerous things it does well, I wish it had hit me a little harder. It's not a case of style over substance, as the style itself is fairly substantial, but the style isn't helping the substance nearly as much as it could.

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