'White Girl': Sundance Review

White Girl still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Squalid, shocking and sexy as hell.

Morgan Saylor plays a college girl taking a walk on the wild side in Elizabeth Wood's debut feature.

“Something like this only happens once in a lifetime,” someone says with heavy dramatic irony toward the end of White Girl. Thank heavens, because if we all lived as fast as the protagonist here no one would survive long enough to reproduce. First-feature-maker Elizabeth Wood’s cocaine-dusted, semen-soaked provocation takes an unapologetically pitiless look at one privileged young woman’s walk through the hot coals of crime, class and desperation. Seductive and repellent by turns, it’s a title that will provoke fierce love-or-hate reactions, but there’s no question it augurs the arrival of a powerful, audacious new directorial talent. Meanwhile, it will irrevocably supercharge the career of Morgan Saylor, best known previously as the petulant teen daughter from Homeland, who is outstanding here as the title character.

Comparisons will inevitably be made with Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), another New York-set succes de scandale about young people out of control that, like this, was produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. If ever there was a case of a film’s reputation being critically diminished by its director’s subsequent tawdry work, it’s Kids. White Girl’s stock could similarly go up or down in years to come depending on its reception now and what Wood does next. But there’s no question that her gender will play a major role in the debate around this film, especially given recent welcome debates around the paucity of female filmmakers and pay disparity between the sexes in the industry. After the screening I attended, an indignant fellow journalist argued that if it had been made by a man it would be vilified for its misogyny, and others are likely to agree with him. Intentionality is so hot right now — it’s like Roland Barthes, post-structuralism and all that "Death of the Author" stuff never happened.

Misogyny, unfortunately, is not something that can be objectively measured in a work of art. It’s something viewers also feel in their gut, and I don’t feel the film is misogynist at all — not because being a woman myself necessarily gives me the right to make that call. To me it seemed like a brutally honest depiction of how easy it is for a young woman (or any young person really), especially one already inclined toward hedonism and rebellion, to confuse adventure with danger, and end up exposing herself to violence and abusive situations when she thought she was just having fun.

Saylor’s college sophomore Leah, like most teenagers, has no sense of fear, a poor ability to assess risk, and a boundless appetite for new sensations, altogether a pretty volatile cocktail. Having just moved into Ridgewood, Queens, with her friend Katie (India Menuez), Midwestern-bred Leah can’t see any reason why she shouldn’t make friends with the Latino drug dealers across the street. Nor can she see any reason why, given she’s horny and high, she shouldn’t have sex with the manifestly hot dealer Blue (rapper-turned-actor Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) one night. Or have sex the next day with her boss (Justin Bartha) at the magazine where she's working as an unpaid intern.

“I always figure it out,” is Leah’s motto, and that self-confidence, that magical belief in her own inviolability and privilege, is what leads to her desperately trying to raise $13,000 in a week to pay for a sleazy lawyer (Chris Noth) to get Blue out of jail, and another $7,000 to pay back a vicious dealer (Adrian Martinez) who fronted Blue and her a pound of cocaine. Having even less self-control than she has common sense, Leah’s solution to her problem is to snort line after line of the stuff she’s been left holding, and sell the rest of it in clubs to other people like herself.

Wood’s gaze, as channeled through Mike Simmonds’ fluid, limpid cinematography, is inscrutable. It watches as she gets so messed up she can’t fight off a rape, and costume designer Rachel Dainer-Best’s choice of short shorts and miniskirts barely bigger than a bandage, lovingly lingered over in close-up, practically dare the viewer to wonder if she’s not “asking” for it by refusing to dress more demurely. But the woozy handheld weaving, jewel-colored filters and pumping backing track of hardcore beats and jazzy remixes also puts the viewer inside Leah’s skin. It’s explicit, yes, and some of the visuals and scenarios uncomfortably evoke cheap pornography. It’s also often a turn-on (like cheap pornography).

Unlike porn actors, however, Saylor is never blank or predictable here, and there’s a fierce intelligence that comes through despite the peroxide-fried doll image her character adopts. Moreover, she projects an unquenchable sensuality that evokes young Samantha Morton in films like Carine Adler’s Under the Skin (1997) and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, movies in which young women, pumped up full of emotion and hormones, also have a great time making bad choices.

Production companies: A Bank Street Films, Supermarche production in association with Killer Films
Cast: Morgan Saylor, Brian 'Sene' Marc, Justin Bartha, Chris Noth, Adrian Martinez, India Salvor Menuez, Anthony Ramos, Ralph Rodriguez, Annabelle Dexter-Jones
Director/screenwriter: Elizabeth Wood
Producer: Gabriel Nussbaum
Executive producers: Christine Vachon Henry Joost Ariel Schulman David Hinojosa
Co-producer: Matthew Achterberg
Director of photography: Mike Simmonds
Editor: Michael Taylor
Production designer: Fletcher Chancey
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Music supervisor: Josh Kessler
Casting: Jessica Daniels
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Creative Artists Agency
No rating, 97 minutes