It’s a Glittering Prize, by David Bax
At the beginning of Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, when Shailene Woodley’s Kat Connor sulks down a suburban street in an olive jacket, it would be hard not to think of Linda Cardellini in Freaks & Geeks. White Bird keeps that comparison going for most of its early, table-setting scenes. Kat and her friends are the same type of teenage misfits but instead of listening to The Who, they’re moping to the likes of My Bloody Valentine. In fact, everything in White Bird in a Blizzard is perfectly attuned to the 1988-1991 setting; so much so that it has falseness to it. But that’s only a feint from the prankish Araki. The superficial sheen is just a thin coat of nostalgic paint covering a massively complex and thoughtful body underneath.
From an unspecified point in the future, Kat narrates the tale of her parents’ sad marriage, her mother’s strange behavior and eventual disappearance, and the mystery of where she went. Meanwhile, Kat graduates high school, goes to college, dates boys, watches her relationship with her father change and does all the other things young women of her age often do.
If it all sounds like a melodramatic coming of age movie, well, in many ways it is. Still, this is Gregg Araki we’re talking about here. He finds more than enough time for his florid imagination and bent sense of humor to come through. There are bizarre dream sequences (from which the film may get its title) as well as moments of laugh-out-loud comedy (one of Kat’s boyfriends is given to malapropisms such as, “It’s like a vicious circus”). Plus there’s a refreshingly frank and realistic take on a young woman losing her virginity and gaining sexual agency that is unfettered with moral sturm und drang.
That doesn’t mean White Bird is uninterested in sex, though. On the contrary, it informs most of the psychic and generational turmoil of the story. When we see Kat’s parents (played by Eva Green and Christopher Meloni), we’re really getting the unseen, older narrative of Kat’s version of the younger Kat’s version of them. Through these layers of gauze, they appear laughable and sitcom-ish, meaning they look as typically sexless as the long-standing American ideal of marriage often seems. But as a young girl, Kat gets a different viewpoint when she accompanies her dad to work and realizes that the secretaries think he’s hot. It’s not enough to fully pierce her presumptions, though. Kat may yearn to understand her parents but she’s also too invested in her jaded identity to admit that she doesn’t already.
Therein lies the friction. Kat’s desire to appear mature is the major roadblock to her becoming mature. At the same time, her parents have been exactly where Kat is. Her mother in particular (Green is marvelous here) scorns Kat for her naiveté but resents her for her youth, her body and her future. Both women view sex as something that will make them seem older or younger, respectively. The entire film is a largely unspoken sexual discourse across generations.
In the end, White Bird in a Blizzard falters a step by letting us know exactly how and why Kat’s mother disappeared. It’s the one note of dissonance in a beautiful and bold film about how impossible it is to ever know anything for sure about anyone, especially ourselves.