Gregg Araki can spin pop-colored, darkly funny suburban tragedies like few other directors working today, with 2004’s “Mysterious Skin” as the formidable example. Sundance premiere “White Bird in a Blizzard,” while not matching the overall emotional swell of “Mysterious Skin,” again finds Araki in top form.
Based on Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same title, “White Bird” centers on teen Kat (Shailene Woodley), living a life of angst and parental disappointment in late 1980s suburbia. When her unpredictable mother (Eva Green, giving off a major Bette Davis vibe) seemingly vanishes into thin air one day, and her doormat father (Christopher Meloni) is sent into a tailspin of despondency, Kat holds it together as best she can. She begins an affair with the middle-aged, macho detective assigned to her mother’s case, while halfheartedly attempting to stay in a relationship with her dopey boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), who seems to have lost sexual interest in her anyway.
Because of the film’s enigmatic plot premise, Araki gets to go creepy (working with DP Sandra Valde-Hansen), with scenes that submerge into Kat’s dream life, where she wanders in a white-out blizzard while catching glimpses of her mother, a naked Ice Queen in poses alternately angelic and morbidly terrifying. These are set off against Kat's actual memories of her mother, told in flashback, that are rainbow-hued, belying the unrest at home.
French actress Green, an underused talent, has always had something crazed behind her large, popped eyes, a ferocious energy that serves her well here as a woman disappointed by life and content to rage against it until everyone in her wake is as miserable as she is. Woodley by this point has mastered playing a naturalistic teen (as seen in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now”) and again puts that talent to good use. Meloni may be the standout, taking on a role that as written is difficult to pull off (the seemingly meek father with more than a few secrets to hide). The role could easily turn into a genre caricature, but it doesn’t: Meloni shifts with versatility between affability, sadness, and frustrated discontent so subtle its simmering goes unnoticed until a late, crucial moment.
The weakness in “White Bird” is in the plotting, which is predictable and often cliché-ridden. The talent behind the film and in front of the camera is strong enough to ignore this, for the most part, though Woodley’s voice-over narration running throughout the film threatens to ruin otherwise elegantly executed moments, and is too literary, seemingly ripped straight from the pages of the novel (having not read the novel I can’t know for sure).
The truest mark of Araki’s success with this very good if flawed film may be that its finale, while completely telegraphed, is still moving -- tear-jerking, even. Araki finds wells of emotion and meaning that may belong just to the film, and not the source material.