This is an odd duck of a film. Part coming of age story, part murder mystery, part Douglas Sirk melodrama and all told, the pieces do not really fit together. The mystery is not much of a mystery. Performances range from scenery chewing at its finest to naturalism at its most pure, and it ends up being kind of a mess when the credits start to roll. However, it was a captivating mess. It was a puzzle where the pieces were so compelling to look at that the fact they formed a picture of something rather ugly did not matter. The process of getting there was almost rewarding enough.
White Bird in a Blizzard tells the rather familiar story of Kat (Shailene Woodley), an emotionally checked out seventeen year-old in 1988. She hangs out and drinks with her friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato). She wants to have more sex with her stoner, spiky-haired boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), who, for some reason, keeps blowing her off. And, one day, her mother (Eva Green) up and disappears without a trace.
Being the detached teenager she is, her mother disappearing does not really bother Kat. She will occasionally have a strange dream involving her mom, but she seems pretty cool with just moving on. Her focus is much more on getting laid, which manifests itself in sleeping with the detective in charge of the case (Thomas Jane). As time passes, though, Kat’s walls start to break down, and she will have to confront her pain rather than ignore it.
I knew the film was going to be a weird one when the opening text reads “Fall/Winter 1988”. First off, there is almost no indication that it is fall and/or winter. The characters may wear a jacket, but that is about it. It is also a curious choice that the film is set in the late eighties (and then transitions into the early nineties). Aside from her walkman and the use of a landline, there is no story reason for it to take place in the past. Then, it gets even more confusing when it will cut to a flashback before the mother’s disappearance, and it will look like a vibrant, 1950s Technicolor film.
The disparate looks between the two segments is not the only thing separating them, they have completely different tones. The flashbacks are explosive bouts of emotion, with Eva Green snarling and spitting venom as only Eva Green can. Then, the present sections are fairly low key, Sundance style character drama making for what feels like totally separate movies, each on their own compelling, but together giving you a bit of whiplash.
Shailene Woodley is turning into a bit of an “it” girl, and I can’t say I disagree with that opinion. Even if she is in a film I very much dislike, such as Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars, she is always fully present in the scene. Most of her co-stars look as if they’re trying so hard because she is so natural on screen, and they can’t figure out how she is doing it.
The biggest failing of the film is its mystery. The solution is so obvious you can’t help but want to shake Kat’s shoulders and yell, “How are you not seeing this?” A mystery where you know the end is rather tedious to sit through. Thankfully, the coming of age story of Kat learning you cannot simply ignore problems or bury them in sex never feels false, and the melodramatic showcase for Eva Green as a housewife spiraling out of her mind in a loveless marriage and joyless life is filled with fireworks you cannot take your eyes off of.
Unfortunately, those things should be completely different movies. Director Gregg Araki wanted a different take on a familiar tale, but he ended up with several different takes on a familiar tale. On a scene by scene basis, they are constructed very well, but when they are strung together, momentum gets lost, and the audience cannot grab hold of a tone to engage with. I admire ambition. I would much rather someone try and fail than not try at all. Araki tried and did not completely fail. He only failed about one-third of the time. I would not mind at all if he split the two sides of the film up, expanded both, and delivered two movies. I am a fan of the melodrama and the Sundance drama. The two just don’t go well together.