Why are there so many stories about teenage sexual awakening? Is it because the events, emotions and desire connected to that fragile moment are so vivid that it lodges deep into our mind, staying with us for as long as we live?
I would assume that writer/director Gregg Araki agrees with that assessment, as he has made a career out of exploring those very moments. The bi-sexual, California-based filmmaker has been one of the standouts of the New Queer Cinema (e.g. Nowhere, Mysterious Skin, Kaboom). Araki’s eleventh feature, White Bird in a Blizzard, Araki focuses on a female protagonist going through her sexual awakening while grappling with the disappearance of her mother.
Set in 1988, Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) is a seventeen-year-old only child living in a suburb of the Inland Empire. Her boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) is a typical stud, excelling in the abs department but little else. At the start of the movie, Kat and Phil have already had sex, but the relationship has since cooled off. A problem for Kat, because, “Once you have it, it’s all you can think about.” Phil is unusually reserved with her, misquoting, “Absence makes the heart grow stronger” to her dismay.
But, Kat is not your ordinary teenager with sex on the mind. Nor is any character in an Araki movie. Kat enjoys sex. She does not worry about how sex will affect her self-image, she doesn’t fear being labeled a slut, a whore, a skank, etc., nor does anyone in the movie refer to her as one. Without fear of pregnancy, diseases, or any of the after-school trappings designed to give one pause, Kat is refreshingly progressive about her desires.
But, Kat does have her own set of hang-ups. Kat’s problem is her mother.
Eve Connor (Eva Green) disappeared without a note, a hint or a trace. Just a total and complete disappearance. Araki weaves flashbacks into the present day story, allowing for hints and speculations as to why. Maybe she left because she was bored with Kat’s father, the dull Brock (Christopher Meloni)? Or, maybe she was having an affair with someone else? Maybe Phil? Was she killed? If so, where is the body?
Eve’s disappearance leads Kat and Brock to a Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), a hulking mass of masculinity that Kat can’t help but seduce when Phil won’t give her the ride she sorely desires. In one excellent scene, Kat shows up at Scieziesciez’s motel apartment dressed for battle in a little black dress and ruby-red lipstick. Scieziesciez is already drunk, and matter-of-factly explains what is about to happen and gains Kat’s consent. All of the fun is clearly going to be in the bedroom, as none of the heat is in the foreplay.
But the strength of White Bird lies in the flashbacks with Kat’s mother. Shot in a vibrant, lurid style, these daylight noir scenes are over-lit to a point of excess. Mirrored perfectly by Green’s ability to ham it up as much as possible, they play like mini-Soap Opera that grow more and more severe as the story progresses. They are not designed to depict reality, but to convey emotion and memory, and they do both quite well.
Kat’s budding sexuality is connected to these moments. All she can see in her parents is a loveless, sexless marriage. Domesticity is the fate that Kat fears most, a fate that her Mother shares, causing her to act out in wild and violent ways, growing more and more theatrical. Anyone with a working pair of eyes and ears would know that Eve is acting out against something, her theatrics an overly melodramatic cry for help, but Kat is just too busy with Phil and her desire to get laid to notice.
White Bird in a Blizzard is a sophisticated step forward for both Araki and Woodley. Not that it is a perfect film, the ending falls flat and smacks of deus ex machina, but its faults don’t overshadow the rest, particularly the performances from Green and Woodley. So rich, so juicy, so melodramatic that it is a delight to watch these actors sink their teeth into them.