Written by Dylan Brandsema
You’d think with its star-studded cast, Gregg Araki’s latest film White Bird In A Blizzard would’ve been a top-of-the-box-office wide release, but it seems quite the opposite, in fact, as White Bird seems to have been one of the more overlooked films of 2014. It had an extremely limited theatrical release, despite a moderately successful premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and only managed to gross $378,300 internationally. Is it because audiences have grown tired of his revisited style of filmmaking (appropriately dubbed “New Queer Cinema”) and consistently recycled themes? The answer to that question is opinionated, but nonetheless, White Bird In A Blizzard, although enjoyable, is certainly not his strongest effort.
The first characteristic of White Bird that stick out the most is without a shadow of a doubt the performances, the most noteworthy of course being that of Shailene Woodley. Known primarily for the still-ongoing, YA-orientated Divergent series, as well recent romantic dramas like The Spectacular Now and The Fault In Our Stars, this film is a well-welcomed departure for her in terms of acting, and she gets a chance to shine in a way fans (and perhaps even naysayers) have never seen before. Some critics have said that Woodley is trying too hard to draw attention from her other work with her performance in this film (which, understandably, could be true due to the excessive swearing, repeated nude scenes, and more mature subject matter she’s given the opportunity to tackle), but that only means she did a successful job. In the role of Kat Connor, a young adult trying to elope into the next stages of her whilst dealing with the mysterious disappearance of her estranged mother, Woodley dazzles.
The same can be said about her two co-stars, Christopher Meloni and Eva Green, though they are not without faults. In the role of Kat’s father, Brock Connor, Meloni does a stellar job — after a while, you forget who you’re really seeing on the screen (even with his unintentionally hilarious mustache). After 15 straight years of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it’s refreshing to see Meloni branch out and do something out of his norm, and hopefully he’ll be doing more of it the future.
The other matter at hand, of course, is Eva Green. While being provocative is nothing out of the ordinary for Green, her performance as Eve Connor, Kat’s mother, is ominous, intoxicating, and gloriously scene-stealing. Whenever she appears, you can immediately feel an aura of intimidation, and these moments are likely the highlight of the film. The only problem with Green’s performance is that there is simply not enough of it – in a 91-minute film, Green is probably given 15 minutes of screen time at best, despite having top billing and a pivotal role. On the surface, it seems as if this might be all that was necessary, but this also makes for the unfortunate fact that regardless of Green’s mesmerizing performance, Eve Conner, as both a character and a story element, is terribly underdeveloped. We never really get the sense that she and her husband ever loved each other, or that she cares for her daughter. The only proper development she’s given is through Woodley’s narration, and through the conversation she has with her therapist (played by Angela Bassett). This is of no fault to Green of course, but more so a fault of the writing and directing by Araki.
On the topic of the cast, still, one of the biggest crimes White Bird commits is that despite its A-list talent, so much of it is wasted. While Gabourey Sidibe is fitting as Kat’s old hometown friend Beth, stars like Angela Bassett and Sheryl Lee aren’t given much to do at all, only appearing for roughly about a scene and a half each, reciting the lines in the script with no real sense of purpose or reason. As Kat’s therapist, Dr. Thaler (Bassett), and Brock’s new love interest, May (Lee), they do a passable job, but they don’t feel at all like they belong in the minor roles they’re given, and are miscast in the worst way.
If there’s one thing director Gregg Araki has been known for over his last 20+ years as filmmaker, it’s making coming-of-age comedy-drama-ish indie flicks that often center around people of younger age (2004’s Mysterious Skin arguably being his most successful venture), and White Bird is no exception. Araki does a successful job at making the film about both the disappearance of Kat’s mother, and how Kat lives her young adult life dealing with it – however, there are many elements of the film that don’t seem to pan out the way they probably should have. One thing the film consistently goes back to is Kat’s sexuality – we see her lose her virginity, we see her repeatedly go back to an older detective for sex, and she is always talking to her friends about how her sex life is unsatisfying, but it’s never really made clear why exactly her sex life is so important. In the beginning and end narration, Kat explains “I was 17 when my body changed seemingly overnight, flesh and blood and raging hormones. But then one night that summer, everything changed. I was 17 when my mother disappeared. One day she was there, cleaning, making dinner, then the next, she was gone.” Clearly Araki meant there to be a connection, but never puts in enough effort to make fair of the juxtaposition between the two.
This is a small component of what is ultimately the biggest problem in White Bird In A Blizzard. Despite the stellar performance, stunning visuals, and a killer soundtrack, the film never managed to find its feet as to what kind of movie it really wants to be. It has elements of many different genres – parts of it are a coming-of-age sex drama, parts of it are fantasy, others black comedy, and sometimes it’s just a straight-up suburban thriller. The roller coaster of categories White Bird seems to take does not, in a way, work for itself (especially given it’s rocky pacing in the last 40 minutes or so). Audiences will get the sense going in that Araki wanted to craft a multi-genre masterpiece of sorts, but seemingly gave up halfway through, and now we’re left in uncertainty concerning the nature of the film’s narrative, which is conclusively the film’s biggest downfall.
All in all, White Bird In A Blizzard is a mixed bag, and could’ve been much better if given better treatment in its lacking areas. It’s a perfect example of a movie that didn’t live up to it’s own potential, in contempt of its star power and intriguing story. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of Araki or anyone in the cast, and even though it’s certainly not perfect, it’s enjoyable for what it is, even if it is sort of confused.
A cult classic in the making? Probably not. A good, but flawed movie, worth checking out? Surely.
Overall Rating: 7/10