Shailene Woodley and Shiloh Fernandez in White Bird in a Blizzard. 2014.
Shailene Woodley and Shiloh Fernandez in White Bird in a Blizzard. 2014. Magnolia Pictures

Review: White Bird in a Blizzard: Snow Job for Shailene Woodley

Oct 23, 2014

Do actors ever say no to indie directors? Offered a role in a small movie based on a well-known novel, do they read the script before diving into what may be an empty pool? It's nice that established and emerging stars agree to appear in ambitious low-budget films. Such pro-bono work gives the movie a higher profile and the actors a potentially more distinguished résumé. But what proved a brilliant career choice for, say, Matthew McConaughey — whose switch from major-studio romcoms to risky indies like Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Mud paid off with a Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club — doesn't necessarily benefit every mainstream name.

This week's object lesson: Shailene Woodley in Gregg Araki's White Bird in a Blizzard.

Following the lead of YA-movie star Kristen Stewart, who took a break during her Twilight films to play it serious, and often naked, in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Woodley lends her Divergent luster to an '80s-set melodrama about growing up sexy. And yes, to the teen boys wondering, she has a few nude scenes and no regrets. "I felt great doing it," she told E! Online. "I was not fully robed. And our bodies had no makeup. Who needs makeup? I'm only 22. My boobs are great. They don't need any help." Now that's how to sell a movie.

Beyond the prurient, there's not much of interest in this dour portrait of middle-class family values. In her midteens, Woodley's Kat Connor is coming of age physically and sexually. This inevitable course of nature upsets her mother Eve (Eva Green), who feels her youthful allure evaporating as her daughter's blooms. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Eve reads a sex manual in her bedroom while, downstairs, hubby Brock (Christopher Meloni) masturbates to a Hustler pictorial. That Kat is getting her jollies with Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), the prole stud next door, so infuriates Eve that she reveals herself to him in a sheer peignoir. Then she vanishes, leaving no trace for the town's hunky Detective Theo Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane) to track down. Eve's a gone girl. Where'd she go?

Once Eve loved her daughter; she called the eight-year-old Kat her "purr-fect kitty." But now, with the girl providing unfair competition, and after cooking two decades of dinners for a man she hates, Eve is spiraling into Serial Mom derangement. "I want my f---in' life back!" she screams just before she goes missing. Brock mopes around trying to tamp the volcano of anger at his wife's contempt.

And Kat, trying to become her own person, can't shake her parents' influence even in her most intimate moments. Her beau Phil is "dull, stupid," she says — "like my dad." And when Phil deflowers her, Kat's voice-over declares: "And like that, in a blink, my virginity disappeared. Just like my mother." The movie, which hopscotches in time from Kat's early youth to her post-mom college days at U.C. Berkeley, could be a modern gloss on The Graduate: the hot girl from suburban L.A. (also enrolled at Berkeley), her horny mother and the young man who accepts favors from both women. Go back further, and Blizzard has enough crazy-family material for a Greek tragedy, if Greek tragedies weren't very good.

Two decades ago, Araki made a bunch of gay or bisexual movies — The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation — that brought a perversely larkish lilt to the toxic stain of the AIDS generation. His Mysterious Skin, in 2004, managed to merge gay hustling with an alien-abduction plot. Blizzard, which Araki adapted from a novel by Laura Kasischke, lacks any major gay characters (until the end); so it must serve as a lavender look at the straight suburban world. And God, the view is so awful it's almost amusing — at least for Araki.

Like Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes' queer deconstruction of straight Hollywood melodramas from the '50s, Blizzard lets art direction amplify (and sometimes substitute for) characterization. The Connor home is a living museum of '80s kitsch, with the costumes coordinated to blend with the furnishings; the clothes really do match the drapes. The noirish lighting of the interiors contrasts with the whiteness of Kat's nightmares of her mother buried alive in snow. And to show the psychological distance between characters, Araki plants actors at opposite ends of the wide screen. When Kat visits the detective in his man cave, they sit far apart on a curved couch long enough to be King Kong's boomerang. Then they get this close for the sex scene.

Musing on her therapy visits to a sympathetic shrink (Angela Bassett, with nothing to do), Kat says, "I feel like an actress playing myself — a bad actress." Woodley is quite a good actress, as she revealed in The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent. Here too, she displays her gift for making wounded emotion visible: her face can sear as if sunburnt. But she's better at playing the ordinary girl with heroic resolve than a teen so stunning she drives her aging mom bonkers.

The miscasting is especially severe with the 34-year-old Green in the role of Kat's 42-year-old mother. Green, the siren of this year's 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, regularly seduces viewers with her sexual fury, but she can't persuade them that she's a frump suffering from daughter envy.

For Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard might prove a fun vacation from her Divergent series. But Green, offered an ill-fitting role in Araki's affectless, ineffectual drama, should have said No thanks.

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