White Bird in a Blizzard Review

Posted: September 16, 2014 in 2014 Fantasy FilmFest, Drama, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

White Bird4“I was 17 when my mother disappeared…”

There is a haunting beauty to the tag line of White Bird in a Blizzard, an ambiguity that echoes throughout the film. Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) loses her mother (Eva Green) just as the young girl is becoming a woman, but has Eve Connor walked away from her family or was she taken? The mystery of the mother’s departure, and the effects of her absence for better or worse on Kat and, to a lesser degree, on husband and father Brock (Christopher Meloni), form the center of the film. Unfortunately, the narrative is burdened with too much extraneous material that distracts and detracts from the beautiful, wondrous, excruiating, painful, scarring and fascinating mother-daughter relationship that should be the sole focus.

So much needs to be stripped away from the story, beginning with Kat’s high school friends, Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mark Indelicato), otherwise known as Sassy, Overweight Black Chick and Class Queen. The scenes of those two with Kat play like outtakes from the first season of Glee. The characters, situation, and dialogue are so cliched that the audience waits for a wink and a nod that these stocks characters are deployed in the ironic service of a greater societal insight. Sadly, that is not the case.

The next thing that can go is Kat’s therapist, Dr. Thaler, played by the incomparable Angela Bassett. It’s killing flies with a hammer to deploy a talent like Bassett in so inconsequential a role. The story is told in two large bites of time: the late 1980’s when Eve disappears, and a few years later, when Kat returns to her hometown on holiday break from college. The scenes with Bassett in each of the two periods are little more than “How do you feel?” and “How do you feel about feeling that way?” sessions.

While stripping away pretense and distractions, the next thing that can go is setting the story almost 30 years in the past. Other than clunkier cars and an absence of smart phones, there’s no tangible difference in having the story play out in the late 80’s/early 90’s. If anything, contemporary mother-daughter relationships are even more complicated than they were 30 years ago, so nothing obvious would have been lost by employing a present day setting. Additionally, the flashbacks which portray Eve as the ultimate housewife with an almost fetishistic fervency are already out of synch. According to the film’s timeline, these snippets from the early part of the marriage would have taken place in the early 1970’s, but the fashion, behavior, and attitudes scream early 60’s Mad Men.

The subplot of Kat’s romantic tryst with the detective investigating her mother’s disappearance is not as awful as it sounds, and Meloni has his moments as the haunted husband, who is now rid of the emasculating shrew that replaced the beautiful young woman he married. Even so, nothing in the film is as strong as when the spotlight is on Kat and Eve. The movie opens with a wonderful scene of Kat discovering her mother asleep on her bed in the late afternoon, wearing a cocktail dress and pearls without an apparent reason. Unfortunately, it never quite reaches that delicious level of madness again.

Woodley and Green are wonderful, either apart or together.  Green is particularly strong as the mother who watches her daughter’s flowering with horrified fascination in a modern fairy tale. Director/screenwriter Gregg Araki uses his two lead actresses to tremendous effect, and he creates moments of beauty and power, but they are too few and too fleeting. The film works best without explanation. The ending is clever, but that cleverness is simply another distraction from the mother-daughter story that might have been.

Two stars.

 

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