White Bird in a Blizzard is a mystery story, but not the mystery you’re expecting. Set in motion by the disappearance of a teenage girl’s mother, filmmaker Gregg Araki’s latest is only sporadically concerned about the parent’s whereabouts. Instead, it focuses on the young woman left behind, in the process delivering a rather thoughtful study of adolescence, budding female sexuality and the horrifying realization every child goes through about her parents: At one point, they were people, too.
Based on Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel, White Bird in a Blizzard is set in Southern California suburbia in the late 1980s. Shailene Woodley plays Kat, who’s about a year from graduating high school when her mother goes missing. Even before then, though, Eve (Eva Green) was acting strangely, sleeping on her daughter’s bed in the middle of the day and finding her way into the liquor cabinet, expressing bitter disappointment that she married the ineffectual office drone Brock (Christopher Meloni). When Eve vanishes, Kat and Brock aren’t entirely surprised: They both privately conclude that she walked out on them to go find a better life somewhere. Maybe if Kat were braver, she’d do the same thing.
With such a setup, the film raises expectations that the plot will follow some sort of whodunit narrative as the police look for clues into Eve’s disappearance. (Was she kidnapped? Murdered? In hiding?) But Araki (Mysterious Skin) has no interest in our expectations. As envisioned by Araki, Eve is a permanent specter, a ghostly presence in Kat’s life even when she was around. Green plays the character with more than a touch of camp, giving Eve a boozy, bored-housewife vibe that suggests it’s less a realistic portrait than the exaggerated image her daughter had of her.
That suspicion is backed by Araki and cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen’s dreamlike tone to the proceedings. Even when Kat isn’t waking up from visions of walking through snowstorms, White Bird in a Blizzard seems adrift in the character’s teen-angst disillusionment, and the film has a bittersweet, melancholy air that borders on the artificial. At times, Araki seems to be making an ersatz ’80s teen drama that’s a knowing homage to actual ’80s teen dramas, but the emotions sting in such a way that White Bird in a Blizzard transcends pastiche.
Much of the credit has to go to the performances, especially Woodley’s. White Bird in a Blizzard extends her streak of empathetic, thoroughly lived-in turns that feel so natural she makes other young actresses look like they’re emoting by comparison. Kat is her most adult character—before her mother’s disappearance, she’d already become sexually active and wields a bitter resignation about her future—and Woodley is wholly convincing in the part, capturing Kat’s buried insecurity and burgeoning confidence. (She has a terrific scene with Thomas Jane, playing the hunky local cop assigned to Eve’s case, that is intensely erotic but also almost heartbreakingly vulnerable.) Kat isn’t a particularly novel creation, but Woodley’s sensitive, smart portrayal makes all the difference: She illustrates how every young person is, in effect, a work-in-progress, trying to find themselves within the unformed clay around them.
As time goes by and Kat and Brock begin to become accustomed to the idea that Eve isn’t coming back, White Bird in a Blizzard starts to flirt with a darker tone. Just as Kat is establishing her own identity and making peace with her mother’s absence, Araki slyly introduces an element of doubt, not just with Kat’s understanding of her parents but also with what, precisely, happened to Eve. But because Araki treasures the mystery, the film radiates troubling uncertainty that’s a universal condition for all young people longing to shake free of their parents’ influence. And adding to that uncertainty is Meloni, playing a hapless father who seems so unable to guide his daughter into adulthood that it becomes doubly concerning when White Bird in a Blizzard starts making us suspect that he knows more about Eve’s disappearance than he lets on.
Through consciously melodramatic flashbacks and Kat’s intentionally flat voiceover, the film captures the emotion and studied cool that floods the nervous system of young people as they see the wider world beckoning, their experiences and memories so intense they feel like they could burn on contact. Araki has long been in love with those combustible sentiments, and even now in his mid-50s he’s in touch with the pining of adolescence. And he’s also still getting great performances—not just from his leads but also Gabourey Sidibe as a smart-ass friend of Kat’s and Shiloh Fernandez as Kat’s dumb-but-pretty boy toy. (Even Angela Bassett shines in a tongue-in-cheek role as a stereotypical movie shrink.) Too bad the film’s ending is a letdown, tossing revelations at us that, frankly, we don’t need. White Bird in a Blizzard isn’t about the disappearance of a mother but, rather, the emergence of a young woman. And, of course, a reminder that a young actress is continuing to come into her own.
Director: Gregg Araki
Writers: Gregg Araki (screenplay); Laura Kasischke (novel)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett
Release Date: Oct. 24, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.