Indie auteur Gregg Araki is in familiar territory here with this eerie tale of a mysterious disappearance and a teenage sexual awakening; in some respects White Bird In A Blizzard invites stylistic and thematic comparison with three of his earlier films – Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, collectively referred to as the ‘Teen Apocalypse Trilogy’ – although the director’s strong emphasis on LGBT relationships and issues isn’t quite front and centre here, his new film is less nihilistic and, thankfully, he seems to have lost interest in California-centric celebrity cameos. The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy saw early performances by the likes of Heather Graham, Parker Posey, Mena Suvari and Rose McGowan; Araki’s central teenage character here is portrayed by Shailene Woodley, building on her impressive work in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now (I haven’t seen any of her recent young adult-oriented films). She is joined, in an interesting-looking cast, by Eva Green, Angela Bassett, Gabourey Sidibe and Sheryl Lee.
The story is based on Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same name. Initially we’re in 1988, and Woodley plays Kat Connors, the 17-year-old daughter of Eve (Green) and Brock (Christopher Meloni). From flashbacks to the 1960s we glean that Eve lived a full (perhaps wild) life before settling down to uninspiring domesticity with Brock, who initially comes across as a dullard: his unabashed excitement when bringing a brand new Crock-Pot into the house is swiftly checked by his wife’s withering, contemptuous dismissal. Back in 1988 we see that the years spent living as a bored, orgasm-free housewife have made Eve extremely unhappy; she vocalizes her disenchantment as she wanders around the house drunk, slurring her words, while the story does eventually find time to examine Brock’s own state of mind, which is not openly discussed among the family members. Eve is unable to deal with the aging process, and she becomes jealous of her daughter’s blossoming as a sexually-adventurous, free-spirited teenager; suddenly, without a word, she disappears, leaving father and daughter to pick up the pieces. The narrative flickers between periods before and after this mysterious abandonment, during which we see Kat establish two separate relationships: one with classmate and neighbour Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and, later, with the older detective investigating Eve’s disappearance (Thomas Jane). We also see Eve’s attempts to seduce Phil, and interestingly she repeatedly highlights her own ability as a cook in doing so, in stark contrast to her earlier rejection of Brock’s encouragement (‘Phil, would you like to have dinner with us tonight? I’m making crab thermidor,’ purrs this bored, alluring Mrs. Robinson-alike).
Araki’s films are often hyper-stylized, and White Bird In A Blizzard is no different: colours are over-saturated and the director seems to delight in blending a series of strange, dream-like sequences – Kat sees or hears her missing mother in snowy, Narnia-esque landscapes, while these and other visions seem to offer clues about past events and her whereabouts – with reality (at one point the sky above the Connors’ home is an odd shade of purple). The real world seems slightly off-kilter, and it’s no surprise that David Lynch has been repeatedly mentioned in reviews of this film, a comparison that Araki seemingly invites through his casting of Sheryl Lee as Brock’s new partner, a relationship that begins two years after Eve goes missing. As with Lynch’s earlier work the production design emphasises brightly-coloured, 1950’s-and-1960’s-style American domestic perfection, which masks the undercurrents of unhappiness, jealousy and a whole lot more. Additionally the original soundtrack by avant-garde composer Harold Budd and ex-Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie hints at Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions for Twin Peaks but also fits well with period songs by the likes of New Order, The Cure, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Jesus And Mary Chain.
A late bid to up the tempo with melodrama could easily be a homage to Lynch, albeit one that comes dangerously close to derailing this particular film, while some dialogue serves to underline the notion that outward appearances cover up seething resentment and secrets. Kat sees Angela Bassett’s therapist after Eve disappears and their sessions are used as voiceover narration: ‘They were the quintessential American couple,’ says Kat at one point, fooling no-one but herself. White Bird In A Blizzard is packed with similarly loaded lines and the screenplay also smartly hints at relevant details throughout; it is implied, for example, that Eve is gradually turning the young Kat (played by Ava Acres) against her father, or at least not bothering to tell her much about him, which the viewer only realises when Kat sees her father at work and is surprised to discover that he is a charming, well-respected and popular guy. The screenplay also highlights similarities between Kat and Eve, often through Kat’s sexual experiences; indeed Eve ends up seeing so much of herself in her daughter it fractures their relationship and causes the mother to pursue the daughter’s boyfriend.
Unfortunately the final act feels misjudged, in the sense that the explanation given for Eve’s disappearance leads to a sustained period of sensationalism that jars with the earlier parts of the film, jolting it out of its previous, ethereal state. Having not read Kasischke’s book I’m unsure as to how slavish Araki’s adaptation is, but the way in which the plot is neatly and quickly resolved in the film is not in keeping with the tone elsewhere, and I understand that a certain (arguably unnecessary) scene introduced here is Araki’s own; I was left pondering how good White Bird In A Blizzard could have been as a mystery with a few more loose ends, a little less clarification and fewer forced scenes of suspense. Without giving too much away the movie becomes something else entirely: an unconvincing soap opera. That said, there is some pleasure to be had as we tumble through a finale of misdirection and twists, and with all the to-ing and fro-ing between different years periods Araki commendably manages to retain clarity with his editing.
Directed by: Gregg Araki.
Written by: Gregg Araki. Based on White Bird in a Blizzard by Laura Kasischke.
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett, Mark Indelicato, Sheryl Lee.
Cinematography: Sandra Valde-Hansen.
Editing: Gregg Araki.
Music: Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie, Various.
Running Time: 91 minutes.