I’m not sure I can think of a filmmaker who has executed as thorough a turnaround as Gregg Araki. Some of this must be my personal taste; plenty liked his first bunch of movies, including The Living End, Totally Fucked Up, and The Doom Generation; I hated the smug nihilism of Totally Fucked Up so much that I avoided his movies for years. But then he made the terrific, measured drama Mysterious Skin, followed it up with the rollicking Anna Faris tour de force Smiley Face, and continues to oscillate between those modes. As he gets older—dude turns 55 at the end of the year—his movies are by turns wiser and also brighter, cuter. White Bird in a Blizzard, his new movie, is his most restrained since Skin, and a marked departure from the sweet-natured silliness of Kaboom.
Kat (Shailene Woodley) announces the premise of White Bird straight away: she was seventeen when her mother disappeared, she tells us: no possessions, no note, no evidence of anything. She goes on to explain bits of her life with her parents Eve (Eva Green) and Brock (Christopher Meloni), noting that her mother sometimes treated her more like a pet than a child. Green has spent much of 2014 appearing naked in 3D comic-book sequels, but she’s so much more than Frank Miller’s dream girl; in the unnecessary continuations of 300 and Sin City, she dominated the screen with a steroidal version of a femme fatale. In White Bird, she’s less nutso and more just kinda nuts, but Araki makes great use of her contempt for lower beings—and the underlying suspicion that she might just devour her young. Green doesn’t look old enough to be Woodley’s mother (because on a basic biological level, she’s not), but her voice has a weary age to it, as if it’s been spending years marinating in regret.
Her disappearance doesn’t exact shock Kat, though it leaves her mild-mannered father disoriented. She continues her high-school fling with the boy next door (Shiloh Fernandez, actually playing the boy across the street, a discrepancy perfectly matched to the character’s frequent malapropisms), and life goes on. Kat spends a lot of the movie trying to actively deny her mom’s exit as a mystery, which slackens the dramatic tension, as a conflict-averse heroine can do. But the way her late-teenage years drift by, with some major changes happening offscreen, has a kind of offhand poetry. Araki doesn’t always get the words right (the dialogue of Kat’s high-school besties feels a little mechanical) and some of the story, like Kat’s relationship with a cop (Thomas Jane, bearing vocal resemblance to Bill Pullman), edges beyond belief, but he sets just the right fatalistic, disquieting mood.
Araki’s movies tend to pop in candy colors; here, the furthest flashbacks to Kat’s childhood home are awash in overexposed hues, with white outdoor light cutting off the characters from the outside world. Considering that the director’s last movie was the rambunctious Kaboom, and that one of his stars is the battle-fucking champion of 2014 movies, White Bird is often remarkably quiet and low-key—he often holds his shots to establish physical distance between his characters, like an early scene that plays out with Meloni sitting at a kitchen table and Woodley on the other side of the room. Seeing Totally Fucked Up years ago, its labored effort to appear coolly despairing was the most immediate and noticeable thing about it. White Bird in a Blizzard gives its young-adult angst plenty of breathing room.