Here’s the central mystery: What happened to mom? One day, she’s stumbling drunkenly round the house, clad in pearls and a little black dress; the next, she’s vamoosed. “I was 17 when my mother disappeared,” our heroine Kat (Shailene Woodley) says in one of too-many voiceovers that clog the first half of White Bird in a Blizzard. “Just when I was becoming nothing but my body — flesh and blood and raging hormones — she stepped out of hers and left it behind.”
Not that the absence seems to register much with Kat. She mainly itches to get back in bed with her vacant-headed, hard-bodied boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), who hasn’t been giving it to her for a couple weeks. Meanwhile she makes fun of her sad-sack dad, Brock, for worrying about his missing wife; Kat figures mom’s vanishing act is just an attention-seeking ploy.
In flashbacks, we see what a piece of work Eve — Kat’s mom — is. She’s played by Eva Green (Casino Royale, Penny Dreadful) in an all-stops-out performance that belongs in a different, more entertaining movie, one that could have been codirected by Douglas Sirk and Pedro Almodóvar. It’s hard to see how this self-dramatizing beauty ever married mousy-man Brock (Christopher Meloni, playing against type, not so convincingly).
In the days following mom’s absence, Kat and Brock check in with a local detective (Thomas Jane) to set an investigation in motion. Kat sets something else in motion, too. In the guise of providing him with family background, she visits the detective at his bachelor pad and puts the teenage moves on him. He responds with amused self-awareness. “Congratulations, sweetheart, it worked,” he says. “I’m seduced.”
The matter-of-fact approach to Kat’s sexuality, and her confidence in it, is the movie’s main strength. We see how the emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of her development intertwine as she comes of age, heads to college and leaves old ways and people (like Phil) behind. In flashbacks, we see how Kat’s emerging beauty and sexuality contributed to Eve’s misbehavior in the weeks before her disappearance. (One night, Eve all but does a drunken striptease for the awestruck Phil, while across the room Kat aims her best that-is-so-not-cool face at her mom.)
The mother-daughter tension, and the poignancy of watching a live wire like Eve realize too late that she’s grounded herself in the rubber mat of suburbia, would be enough for one movie. White Bird, though, can’t stay focused. Kat goes off to college and dates more boys. She then goes home and dishes with her best pals from high school — a fat girl (Gabourey Sidibe of Precious) and gay boy (Mark Indelicato of Ugly Betty). These might have seemed tired stereotypes even in the 1980s, when the movie is set.
The timeframe gives the interesting but variable director Gregg Araki (The Living End, Mysterious Skin, Kaboom) a chance to put The Cure on the soundtrack and recreate some affectionately awful 1980s fashion and hair-don’ts. But whenever the question of Eve’s whereabouts pops up, as years roll by, Kat’s lack of concern makes for an un-urgent mystery. (Watching it, we mainly hope Green will suddenly reappear, exploding onscreen in a present-tense context and jolting the film awake.)
Green is the standout here, mainly through sheer incongruity. Araki decks her out in ruby red lipstick and an emerald green bathing suit at one point. It’s the perfect ensemble for delivering the line, “Phil, would you like to have dinner with us tonight? I’m making Crab Thermidor.” The rest of the movie is balanced, on the antithetical end of the emotional spectrum, by Woodley’s sympathetic, screen-teen presence.
Though her Kat is a believable human anchor, most of the characters never seem fully realized. Green’s Eve is a construct of dissatisfaction and extreme emotion. Entertaining, yes, three-dimensional, no. White Bird in a Blizzard is based on a novel by Laura Kasischke whose The Life Before Her Eyes was made into a not-very-good Uma Thurman movie seven years ago. I can’t speak for the books, but the two movies have something in common. They focus on hot topics: teen sexuality, generational tensions, high school violence. But the characters who populate the movies feel like placeholders, ideas of people rather than the real things.
Both films end with twisty reveals. Life’s denouement owes a lot to Ambrose Bierce’s story (and the short movie made from it) “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It feels a little like a betrayal of the viewer/reader’s good faith. There’s no sense of betrayal at the big reveal of Bird. Your likelier response is a shrug. The mystery’s solution seems arbitrary, rather than something made inevitable by plausible psychological or sexual motives. It’s a cheat.
White Bird in a Blizzard. With Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Thomas Jane, Christopher Meloni. Directed by Gregg Araki. 91 minutes. Rated R. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.