White Bird in a Blizzard, written and directed by Gregg Araki, adapted from a novel by Laura Kasischke, is like an ultra-realistic painting of a bloody car crash. You can almost smell the smoke and the blood. This is a film you can praise for its technical and storytelling virtuosity, without saying that watching it was an enjoyable experience.
The story is about Kat Connors, a teenager brought to life by Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now, Divergent). When Kat is 17 and just discovering her sexuality, her mother, played by Eva Green (Penny Dreadful, Camelot – the TV mini-series) disappears. No one can find her. The mystery remains unsolved, and life goes on until a couple of years later when Kat returns from college and uncovers disturbing information.
Director Araki uses the “storyteller technique”, which you may be familiar with from American Beauty.
The story is told from Kat’s perspective through a series of non-linear flashbacks, and convoluted flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrative repeatedly jumps back and forth between decades. Kat reminisces and shares stories with her misfit BFFs played memorably by Mark Indelicato (Ugly Betty, Madison High) and Gabourey Sidibe (American Horror Story, The Big C). She talks to her shrink, played by Angela Basset (ER, American Horror Story). She has an affair with the policeman, Thomas Jane (The Mist, Hung), investigating her mom’s disappearance. She interacts for good and bad with her dad, Christopher Meloni (Law and Order: SVU, True Blood). Her relationship with her high school boyfriend, Shiloh Fernandez (Jericho, United States of Tara), adds confusion and foreshadowing.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, Kat’s dreams about her mother are interspersed among these interactions. The dreams usually take place in the snow, hinting at the inspiration for the title, and suggesting that her mother is trapped in a world lacking warmth.
This technique could have been a disaster, but the highly skilled cast, masterful editing and visual clues keep you from getting lost.
The production design also helped keep the chronology clear. Much of the story takes place in the 1980s. Radio Shack stereos, cassette mix tapes, and gold shag carpet let you know what decade you’re in, as does the music of that era which is used in the film – Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, and Cocteau Twins. The changes in appearance and dress as Kat’s mom and dad progress through the decades from 1970s newlyweds to 1980s train-wreck also help and are very well done.
My problems with the film are two. The depiction of Kat’s mom as an archetypical trapped suburban housewife is something of a feminist cliché and more grounded in politics than reality. Also, Kat turns out to be something of a passive heroine. The final resolution of the story is not brought about by her action.
Given those exceptions, which originate in the novel, White Bird in a Blizzard is a masterfully crafted film. If you are a student of film, a feminist, or a Shailene Woodley fan (like me) you definitely want this on your list. A 2014 Sundance Film Festival selection, it is rated R for all kinds of things, and is available on iTunes/OnDemand and opens in theaters October 24, 2014.
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