There was something wrong with Kat’s mother. She cried at strange times. She behaved awkwardly around guests. And one day, when Kat came home from school, her mother was napping in her daughter’s bedroom, all dressed up in gown, heels, and pearls. But Kat was busy finding love with the neighbor boy and hanging out with her friends. They didn’t have time to dwell on such peculiarities. Then, just as Kat was coming into her own, exploring more mature facets of herself as she prepared for graduation and adulthood, her mother disappeared. Now she and her father go about their routines dazed, the case growing cold as life moves on.
The mother’s absence informs the rest of White Bird in a Blizzard. Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, it’s the latest film from writer-director Gregg Araki, whose work narrows in on emotional displacement in a variety of contexts. His work as an early-90’s indie provocateur has, over the course of his career, been distilled into pure moody energy with his prankish spirit tamed but present. He’s been able to mellow his mischievous impulses into mannered, languid considerations of people who are unmoored, searching for answers about who they are and where they’re going. In the last decade, he’s given us a thoughtful, empathetic child abuse survivor drama (Mysterious Skin), a hilariously spacey pothead comedy (Smiley Face), and a raucous paranormal pre-apocalyptic college sex farce (Kaboom). Talk about range.
In White Bird in a Blizzard, the least of his recent features but interesting all the same, Shailene Woodley stars as a girl who is jolted by her mother (Eva Green) simply vanishing without a trace. She finds her boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez) pulling away, her dad (Christopher Meloni) putting on a brave face, her best friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato) ready to talk, a psychiatrist (Angela Bassett) lending a compassionate ear, and a detective (Thomas Jane) investigating the disappearance and creepily flirting with her, too. Woodley moves through her relationships with an open body language that betrays her confidence-covered insecurities quick to appear when she’s pained. It’s another of her fine-tuned emotional teen roles (after The Descendents, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars), and here, in perhaps her most vulnerable performance, she finds a similar core of strength and determination to make the best of a bad situation.
As Kat moves on with her life, Araki threads flashbacks of her mother’s eccentricities into the aftermath of the sudden void. She was loving, sometimes distant, excitable, but prone to melancholy. Green’s performance is wild-eyed scene-chewing, dominating even in its absence. But the absence becomes normalized, just another thing to deal with in a busy teen life, like the haunting dreams of Kat’s mother emerging from a snow storm that repeat with ominous regularity. Araki gives the film, past and present alike, a hazy mood in a locked down camera and cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen's near-Sirkian color palate. It’s a period piece – 1988, to be exact – but, though it gets details right, it feels closer to sickly 50’s melodrama, the kind where the rot’s showing through the surface shine. Something is not right here, a dangling unsolved mystery. The initial shock has worn off, but the pain remains.
The film has tender character work in a somnambulant plot. Kat moves forward, the ensemble (fine performances all) relating to her in a variety of mostly normal ways as she finishes high school, chooses a college, and moves away. All the while, the mystery remains, a nagging thought in the back of her mind, and ours. Where did her mother go? There comes a point when Araki’s direction signals the answer so far in advance of the characters learning it that the final scenes feel agonizingly empty, a wait for an underwhelming reveal to make itself fully known.
Until then, though, it’s a minor key work of small gestures and controlled style, nothing overwhelming, but quiet, insinuating, and full of stunned pain, stunted rebellion. Being on the cusp of adulthood is confusing enough under normal circumstances. Here, that confusion is magnified by the missing person mystery, making coming of age an all the more uneasy process.