I saw David Fincher’s Gone Girl just after watching this, and in a weird way, Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard could actually be the bottom half of a double bill with Fincher’s new masterpiece. Both deal with the secrets and lies hidden beneath the cloudy surfaces of supposedly storybook marriages, and both films examine their themes within the context of a mystery — a vanished wife. What White Bird adds is the viewpoint of the marriage’s offspring, an aspect that Fincher and author Gillian Flynn don’t get a chance to explore in Gone Girl but which ends up the unifying, powerful force at the center of this dreamlike little film.
Araki has been examining identity, sexuality and relationships for a long time in his corner of the queer cinema world, but White Bird in a Blizzard is in some ways his most mainstream-oriented movie. Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, the movie stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a 17-year-old girl whose once-ravishing and now exhausted mother Eve (Eva Green) vanishes from their home one day, leaving Kat and her befuddled dad (Christopher Meloni) to pick up the pieces. Already well into exploring her own sexuality (we are told that she just recently lost a lot of weight along with her virginity), Kat seduces the much older cop (Thomas Jane) investigating her mother’s disappearance and realizes that she might just be better off without Eve around.
Flashbacks reveal the rotting of the Connors’ marriage and Eve’s intense dissatisfaction with life as a suburban homemaker who eventually descends into alcoholism and even comes on to Kat’s dim-witted next-door plaything Phil (Shiloh Fernandez with his pants perpetually poised right above his crotch). As Eve becomes more diminished and desperate, Kat becomes more of a full-grown woman — the little girl leaving her mother behind to quietly fade away, while the mother stews in her jealousy of her own child. Yes, Kat is still haunted by dreams of her mother lying blanketed in snow and calling for Kat to help her…but mom’s fate takes a back seat to the momentous changes taking place in Kat’s own life and body.
All this proceeds at a leisurely pace that never generates much suspense, which is okay because the story twists that are eventually revealed are also telegraphed fairly far in advance. It’s not the mystery, however, that Araki is interested in, but the dysfunction of the family and the sexual identities of its members. Woodley bravely and confidently tackles the more explicit aspects of her role in a way that might shock fans of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars, and to her and Araki’s credit, Kat never comes off as a slut or a victim — even Jane’s much more experienced cop quickly comprehends who is in control of their relationship. The actress also handles Kat’s emotional rollercoaster ably, without swinging too wildly into either passivity or hysterics. Just a few years after breaking out in The Descendants, she is ready for adult roles.
On the other hand, the always magnetic Green comes across here as almost miscast — her European vibe just doesn’t sit well with the image of her as a Middle America housewife and makes the character off-balance from the start. Green seems unsure how to handle the part as well, and her performance veers frequently toward camp (not completely out of place in an Araki joint, to be sure). Her performance is at odds with Woodley’s more grounded work and the overall mood of the movie, which feels much more surreal and displaced despite its late ‘80s setting.
White Bird in a Blizzard is ultimately less a mystery and more a character study of a teenager standing on the edge of adulthood, and if it’s mostly more controlled and accessible than Araki’s earlier work, it also feels much more low-key and a little perfunctory. Still, the director can make a little go a long way, aided by his usual great musical choices (Joy Division, The Cure) and anchored by Woodley’s terrific work. The rest of the cast may struggle from time to time and the plot may be handled a little too casually, but Araki’s leading lady shines and when the film focuses on her transformation, White Bird in a Blizzard achieves a kind of clarity.
White Bird in a Blizzard is available via VOD now and opens in limited release October 24.