Nextfest 2016: White Girl, by David Bax
Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl may concern the reckless adventures of the young woman described by the title, often involving the cocaine also described by the title, but it often feels like it’s aimed less at the demographic it ostensibly depicts and more at their parents. Like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen before it and Larry Clark’s Kids before that, White Girl is little more than an afterschool special with a hard R rating, pearl-clutching alarmism with one clear message: Be afraid to send your white daughters to college in the big city.
Homeland’s Morgan Saylor plays Leah, a student in between her freshman and sophomore years at a New York City school who, in search of cheaper rents, moves into a sketchy Queens neighborhood with her roommate, Katie, played by the artist India Menuez. Leah is confident and bold and soon finds herself chatting up the drug dealers across the street, her eye especially caught by sensitive gangster Blue (Brian Marc). Leah and Blue’s love affair becomes intense almost immediately and, when Blue finds himself locked up on a third strike drug charge, facing decades in prison, Leah commits herself to doing what it takes to get him out, from hiring a slimy lawyer (Chris Noth) to taking over Blue’s cocaine distribution business in order to appease capricious supplier Lloyd (Adrian Martinez).
Banding together with Katie, Blue’s friends (Ralph Rodriguez and Anthony Ramos) and her bosses from her internship (Justin Bartha and Annabelle Dexter-Jones), Leah’s quest to make enough money to save Blue takes on the feel of an Our Gang short, except the Little Rascals never snorted coke off one another’s penises. It’s like the anti-aspirational answer to Dope; though Leah’s goal is hypothetically a noble one, it’s really more about the narrative she’s trying on for the summer, an identity picked up on a whim for some cool cred to share in the coming months and years.
White Girl is at its best when Wood explores this unflattering facet of Leah’s motivations. Wood occasionally reminds us, the viewers, that Leah’s background—her class status and skin color—means she always has the option to extract herself from this situation and this life. Blue has no such choices and Wood’s anti-sentimentality means we’re never confident that Leah will follow through instead of getting bored with her own tourism.
Unfortunately, these moments, clear-eyed and powerful as they are, remain drowned out by the parade of degradations that surround them. Leah’s headstrong self-assurance is a commendable trait but Wood’s repeated insistence on seeing her punished for it grows stale. White Girl so desperately wants to be shocking. Instead, it’s merely numbing.