It’s easy to admire an ambitious letdown like “White Bird in a Blizzard,” but much harder to be moved by it. A melodrama about numbness and detachment, writer-director Gregg Araki’s (“Mysterious Skin”) adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel is a paradox on paper and an anesthetized dud on screen.
The film’s missteps feel all the more unfortunate given the theoretical potency of its heady, rarely explored themes: female adolescent sexuality as pleasure and power, the latency of familial abuse and violence, the blinding effects of youthful self-absorption, and the way epiphanies can bloom like weeds, gradually choking everything else around them.
“White Bird” makes for a fascinating contrast to the crowd-pleasing weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” from earlier this year. Both star Shailene Woodley as smart girls in love, but whereas the YA romance has its protagonist opening up her heart to a boy, this somber, more sensual affair finds its central character falling for herself. In an early scene, the newly voluptuous Kat (Woodley) gazes upon herself naked in the mirror after a tryst with her dum-dum boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), proudly approving of every curve she sees. (It’s disheartening but perhaps inevitable that much of the film’s marketing push focuses on Woodley’s toplessness.)
Kat’s lull of visual self-pleasure is interrupted by her moody, scream-prone mother Eve (Eva Green), who accuses her daughter of sluttiness and worse. “White Bird” is the rare film with a (mostly) sympathetic teenage girl who’s horny and sexually confident, but even Kat can’t get no satisfaction.
That’s mostly because Phil isn’t always up for it (“We haven’t had sex in over a week!” she pouts), but her mother’s callous objection makes things no easier at home. So when Eve disappears one day, Kat feels the strangeness of her absence, but doesn’t exactly miss her.
The first half of “White Bird,” narrated through voiceover, flashbacks, and dream sequences, excavates their temperamental, sexually jealous relationship, including Eve‘s brief flirtations with her daughter’s boyfriend, as well as the furiously unhappy relationship between Kat’s mother and sad-sack father (a balding and mustachioed Christopher Meloni).
The “Snow White and the Evil Queen”-ness of Kat and Eve‘s mother-daughter bond lends itself to rather unremarkable revelations, thus upending that archetypal relation later in the film in an enormously welcome way. (It must be noted that 34-year-old Green looks way too young to be 22-year-old Woodley’s mother.)
When “White Bird” transforms into an active mystery in the film’s latter half, both the plot and the characters become much more engaging. Now in college, Kat returns home during break and, with fresh eyes, reassesses the central void in her life.
She visits her BFFs from high school (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato, playing the sassy black friend and the sassy gay friend, respectively); the detective who was in charge of her mother’s case (Thomas Jane), with whom Kat had a fling; and Phil, who’s visibly uncomfortable around his ex.
Kat doesn’t go out of her way to find the answers behind her mother’s disappearance, at least not at first. It’s only when evidence accumulates that she wasn’t able to hear or remember things accurately in the thrall of adolescent narcissism that she finally feels compelled to ask the right questions. “White Bird” builds toward its final reveals with brisk momentum, and if they aren’t quite satisfying, they’re at least shocking.
Woodley anchors the film with her nimble, earthy presence, even while the film experiments with cheerlessly garish, Douglas Sirk-influenced tableaux that never feel necessary, like Eve reaching out to her daughter, but missing her hands. (Distractingly, Green’s Kennedy-era housewife garb and the rest of the cast’s more-or-less modern costuming belie the 1988-1991 setting.)
Araki’s script also doesn’t give his actors much room to, well, act; Woodley’s overwritten voiceover intrudes whenever there is a story to be told. The film largely squanders Woodley’s considerable talents by having her talking about (but never showing us) the numb but open wound that is Kat’s relationship with her mother.
More disappointingly, the film never figures out how to translate Kat’s lack of emotion into something that makes us feel anything other than distant pity. “White Bird” flutters forward, but doesn’t know how to soar.