Based on Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same title, “White
Bird” centers on teen Kat (Shailene Woodley), living a life of angst
and parental disappointment in late 1980s suburbia.
When her unpredictable
mother (Eva Green, giving off a major Bette Davis vibe) seemingly vanishes into
thin air one day, and her doormat father (Christopher Meloni) is sent into a
tailspin of despondency, Kat holds it together as best she can. She begins an
affair with the middle-aged, macho detective assigned to her mother’s case,
while halfheartedly attempting to stay in a relationship with her dopey
boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), who seems to have lost sexual interest in her
Because of the film’s enigmatic plot premise, Araki gets to
go creepy (working with DP Sandra Valde-Hansen), with scenes that submerge into
Kat’s dream life, where she wanders in a white-out blizzard while catching
glimpses of her mother, a naked Ice Queen in poses alternately angelic and
morbidly terrifying. These are set off against Kat’s actual memories of her mother, told in flashback, that are rainbow-hued, belying the unrest at home.
French actress Green, an underused talent, has always had something
crazed behind her large, popped eyes, a ferocious energy that serves her well
here as a woman disappointed by life and content to rage against it until
everyone in her wake is as miserable as she is. Woodley by this point has
mastered playing a naturalistic teen (as seen in “The Descendants” and “The
Spectacular Now”) and again puts that talent to good use. Meloni may be the
standout, taking on a role that as written is difficult to pull off (the
seemingly meek father with more than a few secrets to hide). The role could
easily turn into a genre caricature, but it doesn’t: Meloni shifts with
versatility between affability, sadness, and frustrated discontent so subtle
its simmering goes unnoticed until a late, crucial moment.
The weakness in “White Bird” is in the plotting, which is predictable
and often cliché-ridden. The talent behind the film and in front of the camera
is strong enough to ignore this, for the most part, though Woodley’s voice-over
narration running throughout the film threatens to ruin otherwise elegantly
executed moments, and is too literary, seemingly ripped straight from the pages
of the novel (having not read the novel I can’t know for sure).
The truest mark of Araki’s success with this very good if flawed
film may be that its finale, while completely telegraphed, is still moving —
tear-jerking, even. Araki finds wells of emotion and meaning that may belong just
to the film, and not the source material.