White Bird in a Blizzard: Sundance Review

White Bird In A Blizzard Sundance Film Still - H 2014

White Bird In A Blizzard Sundance Film Still - H 2014

A murky, underachieved study of a teenager whose mother has vanished.

Shailene Woodley stars in screenwriter-director Gregg Araki's adaptation of Laura Kasischke's novel, about a teen whose mom has disappeared.

Although not without its moments of cheap amusement, Gregg Araki’s adaptation of the novel White Bird in a Blizzard is a tacky-looking, dramatically flat send-up of sexual frustration and psychological warps that would have felt more at home set in the 1950s than in the late 1980s. Although ostensibly a mystery about the disappearance of a middle-class suburban housewife and mother, there is little in the way of dramatic urgency or psychological insight into the central role of the bereft daughter. The interesting cast and the reputations of the book and director will muster a measure of commercial interest.

Shailene Woodley plays Kat Connor, an attractive 17-year-old who has had the misfortune of growing up in a loveless home where dullsville dad Brock (Christopher Meloni) tries to pretend everything’s okay while gorgeous mom Eve (Eva Green) dresses up like a glamorous ’50s TV character, makes dinner every night and slowly goes mad.

One day, Eve is simply gone without a trace. She was nutty enough to have just wandered out the door and gone who knows where, but the cops are not without their suspicions of Brock. The dramatic focus is then split between before and after the vanishing act, but with principal attention paid to how Kat copes with the mysterious hole in her life.

Flashbacks reveal Eve trying to attract the attention of Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), the presumably hot but none-too-bright (or sexually enthusiastic) new boy in the neighborhood courtesy of whom Kat loses her virginity. Dad walks around like a zombie and Kat hangs with her sassy “alternative” friends (Mark Indelicato and Gabourey Sidibe) while waiting for college and the chance to leave her stultifying home environment behind once and for all.

Given that there are no clues to be pursued concerning Eve, the only real point of interest is Kat’s psychological and emotional state. This is partly addressed in drearily straightforward and dully presented scenes between Kat and a shrink (Angela Bassett), occasionally in dreamlike visions she has of her mom in abstract snowy environs (hence the title) and, most intriguingly, in some testing of her sexual powers with the gruff and manly detective (Thomas Jane) assigned to her mother’s case.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2014
Dressed to seduce, Kat shows up at the cop’s apartment ostensibly to discuss the case, only to be taken places sexually that Phil can’t begin to manage, and Jane’s knowing confidence is very refreshing in this context. Although not explicit, these are the only scenes in the film that have any real charge, thanks in large measure to Jane’s taciturn confidence, and the only ones that really push Kat to places beyond the tentativeness of her interchanges with Phil and the catty adolescent chit-chat of her pals.

In fact, the film’s dialogue is so banal and Kat’s reflections are so wishy-washy that the lead character doesn’t come off as all that bright; she never says anything very interesting or indicative of academic smarts, so when she eventually gets into Berkeley, you have to wonder whether they mixed up her transcripts with someone else’s.

Araki does spring a surprise twist at the end that departs from the novel; it’s pretty startling and amusing when it happens, but it’s also so out of nowhere that it’s tempting to say, “Oh, come on.”

Woodley has by far the biggest challenge here, both emotionally and physically, and her characterization is a mixed bag, one compromised by lack of insight in the script and some clumsy staging. She has several nude scenes, which will be welcomed by her young male fans, and her sensitivity comes through intermittently depending upon the credibility of the circumstances.

Green walks a fine line between composure and lunacy, although the director pushes her to one or two over-the-top moments. The combination of Meloni’s physical stature and his character’s meekness creates weird vibes.

As detrimental as anything to the film’s effectiveness are the visuals, which are murky, lack compositional interest and do the actors no favors. Araki deliberately shifted the setting to the late 1980s to allow inclusion of many of his musical favorites of the period, which definitely enliven the soundtrack throughout.

Production: Why Not Productions, Desperate Pictures, Orange Studio, Wild Bunch
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh
Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Dale Dickey, Mark Indelicato,
Sheryl Lee, Angela Bassett
Director: Gregg Araki
Screenwriter: Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Laura Kasischke
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Sebastien Lemercier, Alix
Madigan-Yorkin, Pavlina Hatoupis, Gregg Araki
Director of photography: Sandra Valde-Hansen
Production designer: Todd Fjelsted
Costume designer: Mairi Chisholm
Music: Robin Guthrie, Harold Budd
No rating, 91 minutes