It's easy to dismiss White Bird in a Blizzard as Shailene Woodley's Havoc, the Anne Hathaway yawner that showed her frisky, naked side in an attempt to break The Princess Diaries stigma she was trapped in. While it may have worked for her, obviously it did, Woodley has always been mature beyond her years, and so as she flashes her nude bod and embraces her character's raw sexuality, it doesn't seem like such a wild step for her; more like a natural progression. It helps that the film is directed by Gregg Araki, whose films usually have more going on beneath the surface than just stories of teen angst and sexual yearning.
White Bird in a Blizzard is based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, adapted by Araki and spruced up with his penchant for the surreal and slightly dysfunctional. Part mystery, part languid coming-of-age story, the film is set in the 1980s, a period that seems to be a particular favorite for Araki, although his hold over the time is purely surface in this case. Vivacious high school student Kat Connors (Woodley) comes home one day to find her totally unhinged mother Eve (Eva Green, at her insane best) fully dressed and sleeping in her room, appearing totally unaware of her surroundings. There's tension between them, but not the normal tension between a parent and child. There's sadness and a touch of hatred on both sides. Nothing like the outright venom Eve holds for Kat's father, Brock (Christopher Meloni, tightly coiled), a sad-sack pushover who doesn't seem to know how to handle a house full of strong-willed women. Within a few days, Eve has up and disappeared without a trace or a good-bye note.
The mystery of Eve's disappearance is never far from Araki's attentions, but it lurks in the background of a story that's mainly about Kat's angry steps into womanhood. The chain-smoking, skimpy outfit-wearing Kat knows what she wants, and has no problem going after it. She's literally dating the boy next door, a shirtless dunce (Shiloh Fernandez) who suddenly seems disinterested in sex. So Kat gets what she needs elsewhere, banging the studly cop (Thomas Jane) investigating Eve's disappearance. Kat has no problem going into the gory details of their carnal encounters, describing them in earnest to her best friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato), a pair of outsiders who happily eat up her stories with a spoon.
We come to learn that Kat used to be overweight, but has shed the pounds and is only now coming to realize her powers over men. But as we watch her develop into a sexual vixen, flashbacks walk us through Eve's deteriorating mental state. Eve wants to be youthful and adventurous again, and sees Kat as a vampire sucking the life right out of her just as much as her boring marriage. As she becomes more erratic, it only becomes more suspicious that nobody seems to be all that concerned about her disappearance. With a slightly out-of-phase tone that's less his "Teenage Apocalypse" trilogy and more Mysterious Skin meets Twin Peaks (Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, makes an appearance), Araki explores ideas of body image and female identity with an unusual spin, backed by all of the director's favorite '80s pop hits. But Araki has a difficult time mustering up a lot of energy for the story at times, punctuated by pointless therapy sessions between Kat and her shrink (Angela Bassett). It takes forever for things to get moving, and even when they do it often doesn't seem to be going anywhere until Kat's past and present converge in a twist that David Lynch would be proud of, even if it comes out of nowhere.
Eva Green doesn't get a ton of screen time but she's a dominating presence even though her performance is pure camp in the Mommie Dearest mold. She'd tower over everyone if it wasn't for Woodley, again showing remarkable range from insecure teen to confident woman. It's a role that may turn off some of her fans, especially those who know her from the ABC Family days, but at least Woodley has chosen worthy material to make such a bold step. White Bird in a Blizzard lacks momentum as a sordid mystery, but it's worth seeing for Woodley, Green, and Araki's intoxicating sense of mood.