'White Rabbit': Film Review | Sundance 2018
This whimsical West Coast comedy is a wobbly vehicle for co-writer/star Vivian Bang, who deserves much better.
Filmmaker Daryl Wein’s first encounter with Korean-American actress Vivian Bang was at a presentation of her performance art piece “Can You Hear Me? / LA 92,” in which she plays an immigrant recalling the many, typically racially-centered hardships of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He was so taken with the piece and with Bang’s embodiment of the central character (“When I left the theater, I felt a mixture of emotions; I was moved, heartbroken, enraged, guilty, enlightened,” he writes in the press notes) that he wanted to build a lightly fictionalized movie around her. Unfortunately, the end result, titled White Rabbit, is so insubstantial (passionless and protracted even at 71 minutes) that it makes you wish he had found a way to film that monologue instead — something, anything that would connote the deep-rooted affection he speaks so fervidly about in his director’s statement.
Throughout the film, you do see snippets of Bang’s work, which she performs in supermarkets, drugstores and on street corners while wearing a white bob wig and adopting an emo-confrontational stance and tone. Her goal seems to be to make spectators look quizzically askance, and then allow the vividness of the events she describes to break down their defenses. Not that we get much of a chance to judge that for ourselves, since most of White Rabbit is concerned with the whimsically glum day-to-day existence of “Vivian Bang,” the character Wein and she have sketched from aspects of her own life.
This portrait of the struggling artist has been done a million times before, and there’s little that’s new here beyond the primary focus on minority characters. Despite Wein’s stated desire to “[shine] a spotlight on a strong and complicated female protagonist at a time when women, especially women of color, are still fighting for accurate and meaningful portrayals onscreen,” this sadly comes off more of-the-moment fashionable rather than sincerely radical. A bad movie negates even the best intentions.
Vivian is effectively playing to an audience of one, always and likely forever, and the cringe comedy is supposed to extend from that. (Only four hits on that YouTube video of her dipping her head into a pile of Cheetos! The horror!) To make ends meet she spends her days smiling through gritted teeth at the moneyed people who employ her organizational services through the hire-a-handyperson website TaskRabbit. (White wig. TaskRabbit. Got it.) Her love life is also in shambles, though that seems like it might change after she meets Nana (Nana Ghana), a free-spirited, Africa-born activist-photographer who supplies some much-needed inspiration.
All is not as it appears on that front. Indeed, the last-act drama that ensues between Vivian and Nana seems the height of contrivance, however much it may be based in reality. What spark there is in the movie comes in the scenes when Vivian and Nana are getting to know each other. Both actresses have a sweet chemistry and strong screen presences that you wish were better utilized. A throwaway sequence in which the duo visit a grandiose, neon-saturated L.A. art show suggests the delirious Celine and Julie Go Boating homage this could have been.
Production companies: Mister Lister Films
Cast: Vivian Bang, Nana Ghana, Nico Evers-Swindel, Tracy Hazas, Elizabeth Sung, Michelle Sui
Director: Daryl Wein
Screenwriters-producers: Daryl Wein, Vivian Bang
Executive producer: Zoe Lister-Jones
Directors of photography: Daryl Wein, Tyler Beus
Editors: Daryl Wein, Spencer Rollins, Elizabeth Yng-Wong
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)