At the end of “White Bird in a Blizzard,” I felt sad and dirty and lost. Call it the Gregg Araki effect. The writer/director’s beautifully told films make you feel warm and fuzzy, with bubblegum candy colors and likable young characters, before revealing a latent darkness that leaves you unsafe and unsettled. And these warring sensibilities have never felt more at odds (or at home) with each other than in the campy, creeping dread of “White Bird.”
Foremost the director of “The Living End,” “The Doom Generation” and “Mysterious Skin” (this is his first film since 2010 pratfall “Kaboom”), Araki sheds his new queer cinema roots for this Shailene Woodley vehicle about a 17-year-old girl named Kat whose sexual awakening is sparked by the spooky disappearance of her down-in-the-doldrums alcoholic mother, played with wicked malaise and malice by an out-of-place (but never out-of-step) Eva Green. Then there’s Kat’s stiff, emotionally pent-up father (Christopher Meloni) with more than a few skeletons in the closet, her stoner (yet sexy) troglodyte of a boyfriend next door (Shiloh Fernandez) and the 40-something cop (Thomas Jane) she’s seducing.
With novelistic voiceover, sun-stained small town California setting and a killer soundtrack, it’s pure Araki and Shailene Woodley’s presence in such a dark and offbeat (though troubling) indie should help it find the audience it deserves. Tuesday night, I went to the film’s Los Angeles premiere, which was attended by Araki, Woodley, Meloni, Araki bud Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Araki forebear Gus Van Sant and a bunch of Hollywood hipsters.
Here are eight things to keep in mind about “White Bird in a Blizzard” going forward:
1. Shailene Woodley bares all. Yes, Shailene Woodley (now 22 years old) gets nude, body-and-soul, in the film’s uncomfortably frank but very real sex scenes. Fernandez’s teen idiot next door pops her cherry. But also she sleeps with a much-older Thomas Jane, a disturbing but nonchalantly played dynamic that may send some bubbly “Divergent” devotees running for the hills. Hearing her utter the words “I miss fucking you” comes as a bit of a shock.
2. But this is not her adult actress vehicle. At the LA after-party, Shailene Woodley (“Shay,” as she warmly referred to herself before offering me an affectionate hug) reminded me that “White Bird in a Blizzard” was shot two years ago. And in the film she plays a 17-year-old girl engaging in some very adult behavior, but the idea that she’s still a kid (and a severely repressed one at that) is central to the film’s story.
3. Nor does it announce her turn to indie films. And since the film was shot two years ago, “White Bird” doesn’t signal more independent roles for Woodley just yet. Her hands are tied in “Divergent” chores through 2017, as the hot young-adult franchise rolls out over three more films. But she’s so terrific and honest and real in “White Bird,” you miss the Woodley of “Descendants” days.
4. “White Bird” is Gregg Araki’s vision of the late-1980s… by way of the 1950s. It’s set in the late-’80s through early ’90s, a period Araki has evocatively portrayed since his 1987 debut “Three Bewildered People in the Night” (even “Mysterious Skin” was set in an ethereally dreamy vision of the ’90s). The film’s bitchin’ ’80s New Wave soundtrack, and Woodley’s angsty Winona Ryder-inspired threads, will throw you right back into your troubled teen days. Cocteau Twins frontman Robin Guthrie provides yummy original arrangements to accompany the film’s recurring tableau, where dazed Kat (Woodley) wanders a blank-white snowscape looking for her mother. These scenes alongside the film’s title contain a metaphor so obvious that, at the film’s improbably over-the-top and weirdly hasty conclusion, you wonder why you didn’t feel it hit you harder in the first place.
5. Eva Green is miscast. As the desultory housewife, the French actress and “Penny Dreadful” star hovers over the film like a specter or an alien, more infirm Victorian than happy American homemaker. Her scratchy, throaty voice sounds as if she’s lived and breathed a thousand cigarettes. Araki has a field day playing dress-up with this strange immortal creature, decorating her in pastel-colored aprons and ’50s-style updos. Thus it felt apt that she did not attend the film’s LA premiere.
6. The film premiered at Sundance 2014. Araki and his cast have been sitting on (and living with) this film for almost a year, though it did hit iTunes/VOD last month. Why the long wait? Distributor Magnolia Pictures is likely gunning for late-Fall and winter indie awards. Independent Spirit nods are not outside the realm of possibility. In 2006, Araki got the Best Director nom for “Mysterious Skin,” and has been toasted at Cannes, Seattle and Sundance. Woodley is overjoyed to see the film finally released in LA, where she says people have a real passion for movies.
7. “White Bird” arrives 10 years after the release of Gregg Araki’s 2004 “Mysterious Skin.” The two films comfortably bookend each other as two literary adaptations about the young and repressed in America. “Skin” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was among attendees of the “White Bird” premiere. The emotionally overwhelming NC-17 teen hustler drama marked a turning point both for Gordon-Levitt and Araki, who’s since turned his focus to quirky indie comedies like “Smiley Face” and “Kaboom.” “White Bird” is his first seriously dramatic film in a decade.
8. Araki was inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk. There’s a Hitchcockian progression to the way the film’s dark secrets finally reveal themselves—with clues and red herrings planted along the way—but the grand mystery of the film, what happened to Kat’s mother, is second to the tragic suburban milieu Araki wants to pull us into. Everyone is repressed. The colors, the misery and the characters’ commitment to a veneer of social normalcy evoke the great films of meller master Douglas Sirk, from “All That Heaven Allows” to “Imitation of Life.” And from a media-centric queer filmmaker like Araki—who came-of-age alongside Van Sant and Todd Haynes—that comes as no surprise.