Review: White Bird in a Blizzard (Araki, 2014) – Sundance 2014

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

I promised my husband, who is quite fond of this film, that I would make at least a few positive observations about White Bird in a Blizzard. Actually, in hindsight, it’s remarkable to me that this movie ended up at the bottom of my list. I wonder if there is something in his accusation that his appreciation for the film drove me to dislike it more.

In White Bird in a Blizzard, teenager Kat (Shailene Woodley) endures the aftermath of her mother’s disappearance. But “endures” is precisely the wrong word to use because Kat seems completely unfazed by her mother’s abrupt departure. Gregg Araki‘s movie is inspired by the novel of the same title by Laura Kasischke. Both the director and the novelist were draws for my husband, who, as I mentioned earlier, likes films based off of books and is a fan of Araki’s Mysterious Skin.

So, the promised positives: Attention-sustaining plot line. Vivid colors and imagery that evoke a sense of subversive dreaminess, of subtle mockery. Bold and interesting, if somewhat off-putting, performance by Eva Green, who plays the disappeared mother.

The negatives: Where do I begin? Okay, I’ll begin with the worst. Shailene Woodley is a horrible actress. I already believed it after watching The Descendants, where I thought she was distractingly bad (despite all the accolades she received), but I was willing to pin it on the script or the director, since there were other bad performances in that film. Her acting in White Bird in a Blizzard (and perhaps in general?), however, is so consistently unimaginative and wooden that I’ve finally accepted that it’s Woodley and not her director or script that’s the problem. In this role in particular, her performance reeks of teenage gum-smacking superficiality. I grant that some of that shallowness may be intentional given that her character is supposed to be a little facile (maybe?) and clueless (definitely), but I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from a monotone performance, whatever the role. Some specifics: A fat girl turned skinny doesn’t act the way Woodley does in this movie. And the manner in which her revelations unwind at the end just make her seem stupid, not vulnerable. Also, there’s a relatively unimportant scene in which she’s talking with her college roommate that resembled a scene from a high school acting class. Alas, with a better actress, better directing, Kat could have been such a rich character.

But speaking of monotone performances, let’s revisit Eva Green. I know I listed her as a positive above, and I did appreciate her and Araki’s vision for the character, but the execution, while initially humorous, eventually felt grating and made me cringe. Also, Green needs to work on her accent. I was thrown off in the beginning at what I thought was a horrible pseudo-English accent. Then my friend told me she’s actually British (but he was wrong; she’s French), so what I was witnessing was really a horrible American accent. Either way, her performance was also monotone–but a very loud and obnoxious monotone.

I could go on. Kat’s two sidekick friends are nothing more than cardboard stereotypes (sassy black girl, played by Gabourey Sidibe from Precious, and flamboyant gay guy reminiscent of Ricky in My So-Called Life in looks but not in depth). Aside from a jean jacket here and a walkman there, the set and costume design, for which Araki received so much praise, actually did little to evoke the feeling of the late 1980s in me (the movie begins in the year 1988), but I’m willing to chalk that one up to regional differences or my own faulty memory. The twist at the end (I won’t go into details so as not to spoil the movie) blind-sided me, but not in a good way. It wasn’t supported by anything else in the film and seemed to be purely and meaninglessly sensationalistic. Unsurprisingly, Araki admitted to tinkering with the book’s ending. Everything else about the plot felt predictable.

Araki said he was drawn to the poetic beauty in Kasischke’s novel, but nowhere could I find that in the movie he made. Perhaps what bothers me most is that this film could have been so much more.