2004’s devastatingly powerful child-abuse drama Mysterious Skin appeared to signal a new maturity for writer/director Gregg Araki, then best known for his wild, mid-nineties ‘teen apocalypse trilogy’. Years later it appears as more of an anomaly in his back catalogue, his one serious-minded film. He followed it up with the fun, silly stoner comedy Smiley Face and then Kaboom, an insane sci-fi comedy that harkened back to the ‘anything goes’ attitude of his earlier works. His newest effort, White Bird in a Blizzard is something of a return to the tone of Mysterious Skin, but never reaches the same level of quality.
Araki’s possesses a style distinct enough to make his films feel uniquely his whether or not they’re original stories or adapted from others, as is the case here (it’s based on a 1999 novel by Laura Kasischke). White Bird in a Blizzard is recognizably an Araki movie just from its opening credits, as the titles appear over a shimmering blue background set to Cocteau Twins.
Shailene Woodley plays Kat, a suburban 17-year old in late 1989. Her parents (Eva Green and Christopher Meloni) are struggling in a loveless marriage, and her mother’s behaviour has become more unpredictable. In the opening scene Kat finds her mother asleep lying in her daughter’s bed with no apparent knowledge as to why she’s there. The following day, she disappears.
While Bird in a Blizzard might sound mainly like a mystery film involving the search for Kat’s mother but this always seems secondary. Instead it’s just the backdrop for a coming-of-age story, allowing him to explore familiar themes of ‘alternative’ teenage life and burgeoning sexuality. Indeed the film is quite light on plot in general, being mainly a portrait of this teenage girl learning to cope with the world she inhabits. He’s in his mid-fifties now, and it looks like Araki may never stop making films about teenagers, and while often sensationalistic, he also seems to treat them differently than most filmmakers, and White Bird in a Blizzard isn’t like any other teen movies that spring to mind.
Kat initially starts romancing her hunky next door neighbour (Shiloh Fernandez), but soon turns her attention to the much older cop in charge of her mother’s investigation (Thomas Jane). This could have been another dreary younger-girl-older-man angle but there’s a refreshing honesty to the non-judgemental manner in which Araki treats both parties.
My opinion of Shailene Woodley was considerably lowered by Divergent but this goes some way to restoring it. This is really quite a risky role for an actress in her position to take on at this stage in her career, diving into the distinctly un-family-friendly world of Gregg Araki movies just as her popularity grows with the tween audience. Were it not for the already announced Divergent sequels I would say she should move away from teen roles at this point. She remains the centre of attention despite Green’s striking presence (mainly in flashbacks). Araki keeps the film told from her perspective almost entirely (bar one key closing moment), and even though the combination of voice-over and therapy sessions could perhaps be folded into one, it helps to make the film’s emphases more understandable. Kat’s (wilful?) obliviousness to details surrounding the disappearance that are more apparent to both the audience and other characters, is often reflected in the film itself.
Most of Araki’s strengths are present and correct in White Bird in a Blizzard, dreamy visuals, colourful sets, good casting, strong soundtrack choices (a lot of great eighties alternative bands are heard) and hip references (at one point Kat is seen wearing a This Mortal Coil t-shirt in front of an Eraserhead poster). He generally avoids the weirdness of his earlier work but still finds place for a memorable dream/nightmare sequence that gives the film its title. The atmosphere he creates is such that it feels stranger things could happen at any point, even if they don’t. It’s enough to keep the film watchable even in its duller moments, and come its conclusion it refocuses on the eerie mystery at its heart for a revelation that’s very affecting, if not as shocking as Araki might like it to be.