Overview: A young woman deals with the disappearance of her mother. Magnolia Pictures; 2014; Rated R; 91 Minutes.
Broken Record: One of the hardest parts of reviewing films is having to talk repeatedly about top notch talents. At some point, with certain gifted performers, the critic can only use his/her command over language to hide the repetition of praise. Shailene Woodley, in her young career, is already approaching a point where those acrobatics are necessitated. I don’t think that today there is a working actor or actress under 30 who is as gifted as Woodley (I’ve said it before, and before that). In White Bird in a Blizzard, Woodley sells layers of concurrent emotion, emotions hiding under emotions. She is completely absent of affectation; even in her dream sequences she presents her character Kat as a real thinking and feeling teenage occupying a dream.
And What a Strange Structure to Support: From a high-level view, I suppose one might see this movie to be something of a teenage detective story, but to watch it through that lens would be to miss its unique accomplishments. Director Greg Araki has offered up an affecting critique of Western domesticity. His use of hyper-unnatural light in unexpected places and grossly geometric and angular furniture arrangement is balanced just enough to cause discomfort without distraction. It actually took me a few moments to pinpoint the source of my unease in the sequences filmed in these hollow homes. The dream sequences, in which Kat is usually looking for her mother in a snowstorm, fall between absurd and creepy. And Araki manages a clever observation of Kat wherein her grief-informed behavior works to build our understanding of her character, in that order, and only as Araki permits it. Eventually, it is this same control over our attention that allows the story’s twists to succeed. The revelations are at once comfortable to the story, shocking to the viewer, and earned by prior details.
Rough Patches: Much of the conversation in this film (and there’s quite a bit for a movie that is so good at observing what’s non-verbal) is rendered completely insignificant when the product is considered in its entirely. Thomas Jane, as the investigating detective on Kat’s mother’s disappearance case, turns in a clumsy, somewhat tone deaf performance, particularly in the exchanges after he and Kat have sex. Eva Green attempts to inject life into Eve, the wife/mother who goes missing, but she succeeds and fails on a scene-by-scene basis, at times emotionally stirring, at times cartoonishly emulating insanity.
But in the End: This is another film made decent-to-good largely by Woodley’s participation. Again, as was the case in The Fault in Our Stars, everything that works leans on Woodley for support. But until she finds the right springboard, there’s promise worth watching in these films.