Review: Shailene Woodley and Eva Green spark in disappointing 'White Bird in a Blizzard'
PARK CITY - Sex, death, neon lights, more sex, body-image statements undercut by the number of perfect torsos on display, new-wave pop, more sex... it looks an awful lot like we're in a Gregg Araki movie. And so we are, though for all those trash-ulous trademarks, "White Bird in a Blizzard" feels less like one than most.
A campily erotic coming-of-age murder-mystery tale -- a pretty conventional genre for Araki, the man behind "Mysterious Skin," "Kaboom" and a host of 90s queer curiosities -- this adaptation of Laura Kasischke's allegedly more stable novel promises some exciting variations to the enfant terrible's freaky formula, not least in its young female perspective. What we get is disappointing: a watered-down bad-taste exercise in which neither Araki's lurid affectations nor the source material's youthful angst do much to enhance each other.
It says a lot about "White Bird in a Blizzard" -- not all of it bad -- that its two chief assets belong in entirely different films. Teen queen du jour Shailene Woodley has an open-faced relatability that sits oddly in Araki's preferred realm of irony upon irony; current vamp-for-hire Eva Green, meanwhile, is all stylized hauteur, as if playing Joan Crawford under Todd Solondz's instruction. (She's pretty great, in other words.) Watching them play mother and daughter would be bewildering enough even if the age difference between the actresses wasn't a scant 11 years -- an oddity that at least feels native to ArakiLand, where everyone looks like the hottest possible version of themselves, preserved in baby oil.
The setting is 1988, though the fluorescent kitsch of the production design and the Cure-featuring soundtrack could as easily be retro-contemporary. Woodley plays Kat, a 17-year-old high-schooler still getting to grips with her sexual allure. Formerly obese, she now looks like any other member of the cheer squad -- her physical shyness and misfit friends (one of them a particularly ill-served Gabourey Sidibe) the only evidence of her former wallflower status. Her mother Eve (Green) has no such reticence, posing at every given opportunity in slinky, ridge-shouldered femme fatale dresses and flirting lasciviously with local boys. (She extends a dinner invitation to one, cooing that she makes a mean "crab thermidor" -- Green says the words as if offering sex on a popsicle stick. It's the most delicious moment in the entire film.)
No surprise, then, that there's more than a little friction between Eve and Kat -- not to mention Eve and her husband Brock (Christopher Meloni, mustachioed and milquetoast). Still, that doesn't entirely explain Kat's coolly impassive reaction when her mother disappears into thin air, after a spell of increasingly erratic behavior. Freed, however alarmingly, of her mother's shadow, the girl finally begins to grow into her womanhood -- which, Gregg Araki films being what they are, entails a fair bit of steamy under-the-covers action with Shiloh Fernandez's lunk-next-door and Thomas Jane's macho older cop.
This is nervy girl-in-crisis stuff that Araki writes, lights and dresses mostly for kicks; with the possible exception of "Mysterious Skin," earnestness has never exactly been Araki's thing. The seamy details of Eve's fate are pursued with more relish than the more oblique and decidedly more opaque mystery of Kat's psychological unraveling, but the reveal is still quite tame by the director's standards. (Ditto the sexual content, though the love scenes boast an attractive dream-pop veneer.) The result is a compromised provocation: sufficiently aware of the narrative's generational appeal to tone down its act, but falling some way short of actual emotional engagement. Hold the white bird, please -- I'll have the crab thermidor.