The cinema is a verdant location for finding missing women. The mysteries of so many gone girls have revealed themselves on the silver screen, and Gregg Araki’s latest, White Bird In A Blizzard, adapted from the book by Laura Kasischke, adds another iteration. Like the spaced-out font of its opening credits, White Bird feels slightly incomprehensible on initial approach. The gaps are too far apart. Reading everything at once becomes more of a task than expected, though the end result is exactly as you’d expect. Nevertheless, it takes something straight-forward and expands it in all directions.
Shailene Woodley, who was a revelation a couple of years ago in The Descendants and whose career now seems to be pleasingly gathering momentum, plays Kat Connors, an every-girl in suburban American in late 1988. She’s soon to turn 18 and her mother Eve (Eva Green) has disappeared. She guides us through this narration-heavy tale, which deals principally with the immediate fall-out interspersed with numerous flashbacks. The approach is akin to reading someone else’s diary entries in random order, flicking back and forth, trying to assemble a cohesive picture, but suspecting important details have been lost in the gaps.
Her memories of her parents cast them in particularly different shades. Eve is a strange, unhinged conundrum. A frustrated housewife with evident disdain for her cowed husband Brock (Christopher Meloni). Eve’s grand theatricality, her melodramatic gestures, sit strangely among the relatively straight-faced performances elsewhere, yet they are heightened by Araki’s purposefully ‘off’ direction; clashing sensibilities in sometimes garish Technicolor. At times the flashbacks echo the over-saturated kitchen sink dramas of yesteryear. Douglas Sirk is invoked in a woozy, insincere manner. Elsewhere dream sequences take place with open artificiality. White Bird feels jarringly self-aware. Even when dealing with the ‘real’ events as remembered by Kat, it feels like a film, as opposed to real life. That invisible barrier between the screen and the audience is constantly tangible.
Kat’s present is frequently redefined. Just when we think we’ve nailed when exactly she is recounting the story from, a shift in timescale will push us further away. White Bird becomes a handful of memories, like unsorted Polaroids. In the course of sifting the evidence laid out by our narrator we come to know her friends (the delightful Gabourey Sidibe and the somewhat sidelined Mark Indelicato), her waster boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and the studly yet aloof Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane) investigating her mother’s disappearance, with whom Kat is immediately smitten. These peripheral players, along with Meloni as her father, spin in and out of scenes that focus on Kat’s acceptance of an event that seems initially inexplicable, yet slowly unspools into a mini-mystery and potential whodunnit.
It is only in the film’s second half that this gains any particular momentum, as though the tropes of your standard thriller are something the film is pointedly reluctant to participate in. When the clues start coming, they feel purposefully clunky, sticking out like so many sore thumbs. Araki gives us the breadcrumbs, but they’re whole slices of the loaf. Ultimately the complexity of the mystery isn’t the point. The film finally hits a recognisable emotional peak when Kat is compelled through events to admit her paranoia and suspicion of one of those closest to her. A tender moment of inner betrayal that Araki then daringly undercuts, subverting the viewer’s expectations by suddenly, almost flippantly, giving us exactly what we expected all along.
White Bird certainly feels strange throughout. Not exactly surreal, rather consciously offbeat. Green is but one aspect of this. Her performance is vaguely reminiscent of Penelope Cruz’s kookiness in Vicky Christina Barcelona, albeit pent-up as opposed to openly flamboyant. When she is allowed to unfurl a little of that crazy, drunkenly scaring Kat and Phil one night in the basement, she is reminiscent of Frank Booth’s wasted groupies from Blue Velvet. It’s exceptionally sad. The comparative largeness of Green’s work makes her the most easily identifiable oddity in a film that flatly refuses to feel normal.
Woodley grounds this nagging sense of wrongness with a solid lead performance. Kat seems sometimes utterly disinterested in her mother’s disappearance, happy to move on. Once the final truth is revealed, her eagerness to parcel up this portion of her life seems far more understandable. One can’t help wonder, as the film settles, how much of who she has become has altered how she recalls her younger self. Is there an element of self-deception in the story we’re told here? As White Bird In A Blizzard disappears out of view it feels, as the title suggests, frustratingly out of reach. Like the Escher prints Kat adorns her bedroom walls with, the sense is not that the story has been left unfinished, rather it was never meant to be reconcilable to begin with.