So here’s Gregg Araki, blissfully mired in the late 8os again, soundtrack by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd (of course). Cast full of photogenic shag-happy youths (of course!). Would-be traumatic events viewed through a veil of blank adolescent disaffection (…but of course!). That same nightclub that seems to feature in every one of his films pops up again, chock-full of Depeche Mode T-shirt-wearing teenagers shuffling through the frame. One wonders whether Mr Araki will ever outgrow his doomy, sun-fried obsessions, and one kind of hopes he never will.
This time it’s an adaptation of a novel (by Laura Kasischke), in which a middle-class suburban mother (Eva Green) mysteriously disappears one day, leaving her daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) to live on with a hole in her life, troubled by dreams, endlessly wondering what happened. She moves on, trying to relate to stiff daddy (Christopher Meloni), attending therapy (with Angela Bassett), going to college, ditching ‘C average’ boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and seducing, with little effort, the detective in charge of her mother’s case (Thomas Jane). But eventually the pieces will fall into place, and the truth will be revealed.
White Bird in a Blizzard is a handsome beast, with bright widescreen compositions that emphasise the distance between its characters, and a thoroughly thought-through sense of design. Araki here tends to deliberately avoid establishing shots, leaving us in a world of interiors and backyards that he can fill with his wasted teens and dysfunctional adults, where the mundane and transgressive are never far apart. The prevailing mood is a kind of woozy numbness, only occasionally pierced by moments of shock, or by Eva Green’s unsettling performance as the missing mother, wine glass ever in hand, poisonous to her husband, all over her daughter’s boyfriend, throbbing with unmet desire. The film becomes a lot more compelling while she’s on screen, and frankly she wipes the floor with the younger cast, who, while fun to watch, with their profane (and occasionally anachronistic) banter, just don’t have the dimensions of mommie dearest.
The determined air of dreamy unreality that hangs over the film works against full emotional engagement, and, perversely, makes it quite a breezy watch, despite the dark and complicated possibilities of the subject matter. It’s closer to John Waters than David Lynch in the ‘sick heart of suburbia’ stakes. And while it’s more like Mysterious Skin than the flashier ‘teen apocalypse’ works in Araki’s back catalogue, it doesn’t quite bite as deep as that film. ‘You scratch the surface and there’s just… more surface’, Kat intones at one point. Well, quite. But it’s an enjoyable surface to scratch.
Watch the trailer: