Essentially “White Privilege: The Movie,” Elizabeth Wood’s fire-breathing debut is an adrenalized shot of ecstasy and entitlement, a fully committed cautionary tale that’s able to follow through on its premise because — like the remarkable young actress who plays its heroine — the film is unafraid of being utterly loathsome. And make no mistake, while the madness of her misadventures is captivating from start to finish, you will hate the titular “white girl.” But it’s what Wood and her star do with that hate that makes their collaboration special, these two rising super talents manipulating your vitriol with the grace of a contortionist and the recklessness of a tornado.
A cherub-faced college kid who sublets a Ridgewood apartment with her best friend (India Menuez) for the summer, Leah (21-year-old “Homeland” alum Morgan Saylor) slinks around a mangy fizz of yellow-white hair, floating through the heat with the breezy confidence of someone for whom there have seldom been any consequences. Naïve and boundless, Leah lives so blithely that it all feels like an affect — it’s hard to tell if she’s predator or prey.
The first thing she does after settling in to her not-so-white new neighborhood is make eyes at Blue (a soulful Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), the dreamy-eyed Puerto Rican drug dealer who lives next door. “What kind of girl do you think I am?” she asks when Blue makes his move. Cut to: The two of them fucking against a wall on her roof.
And so begins a deliriously fun cautionary tale that unfolds like “Kids” for the social media crowd, “Spring Breakers” with a summer internship. And yes, of course Leah has a summer internship — she works at one of those trendy culture magazines with a name like “Ass” or “Garbage” or something like that, and most of her work hours are spent going down on her scuzzbucket boss (Justin Bartha) in his office or going down on her scuzzbucket boss (still Justin Bartha) in the bathroom stall of a nightclub.
All the while, Leah snorts enough cocaine to qualify as her own cartel, and is left holding a massive (and massively valuable) brick of the stuff when Blue is picked up by the cops and sent into prison on his third strike. It’s kind of her fault — she was the one who suggested he sell his product in Manhattan, even though her new man insisted that he doesn’t “fuck around in the city.” She just couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that there might be barriers for anybody, or consequences to crossing them.
Our wide-eyed heroine takes it upon herself to unload the drugs and clean things up, but what we know and Leah tries to forget is that — until she gets stuck with a $13,000 fee from her scuzzbucket attorney (Chris Noth, excellent in a thankless, endlessly undignified sort of way) — she could easily pull the ripcord and go back to her life above the law.
Inhabiting Wood’s semi-autobiographical protagonist as though she were living through it herself, Saylor plays the kind of wild child who acts out because she came from a good background — it takes a certain fearlessness to portray a character who’s never had to be afraid of anything, and the actress steps into the part like she’s running into traffic. This is one of the year’s only genuinely brave performances.
Wood, to her immense credit, never shies away from showing the worst side of her spoiled proxy. She doesn’t demonize the girl, either. She walks Leah directly into damningly clueless lines like “I don’t just want to let Blue sit in jail because he doesn’t have a good lawyer!,” but the story moves so fast and with so much sweltering verve that — like Leah — you’re happy to get swept along for the ride and reserve judgement (and Saylor is so good that you’re always eager to see what she does next). There’s a supple restlessness to Wood’s direction, like her camera is always chasing adventure or looking for a better party; everything it sees becomes interesting by virtue of the fact that Wood is looking at it.
The more unhinged the movie gets, the more tempting it becomes to focus on the things that Leah can’t shake off. The reality of social, gender, class, or race distinctions don’t have to define her, but she can’t pretend they don’t exist. “White Girl” won’t teach you anything the world hasn’t already taught you, but it vividly illustrates how identity is inextricable from experience, and proves that point with a viciously blunt final shot. What Leah takes away from her wild summer is ultimately unclear, but the dumbfounded look on her face says it all — white privilege means never having to say you’re sorry.
“White Girl” opens in theaters on Friday, September 2.