White Bird In A Blizzard Dir. Gregg Araki

[Magnolia Pictures; 2014]

Styles: suburban drama, missing woman
Others: Mysterious Skin, Safe, Gone Girl

White Bird in a Blizzard plays you for a fool, and a lot of whether you enjoy it or not depends on whether you like being the fool or the one figuring everything out. It tells two stories simultaneously; most apparently, it tells the story of Kat, a suburban teenager whose mother goes missing mysteriously in the autumn of 1988, whose father is a shallow well of a human being who shows next to no emotion — or that’s what Kat thinks, anyway. But it also tells the story that everyone around Kat sees, which is the story of where her mother went, and why.

In telling the latter story, White Bird in a Blizzard gives viewers a series of red herrings that are impossible to decipher, and when it all adds up, not everything makes sense. “Why did so-and-so do this if really it was like this?” “Why did they show us that instead of what would’ve been more important?” You’re sniffing for clues on the wrong trail. But the mystery is so much not the point of the thing that it hardly seems to matter; Kat herself doesn’t even seem to really notice or care much about her mother’s disappearance until near on three years later, when she comes back from college to find the small town she grew up in still always perpetually the same, while she is incredibly different — caked now in make-up and smoking cigarettes only twice a day. “Matured.”

This movie plays as a companion to Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki’s drama from nearly a decade ago, not in that they inform something about each other but more in that they are very similar. White Bird in a Blizzard is about a disappearance and stark hallucinogenic dreams as much as Mysterious Skin is about an alien abduction; in each, there’s something wriggling beneath everything, which was really what you’re after. The characters in both propel a mediocre story that has predictable rises and falls — where you know what’s going on while the main characters labor in oblivion — to something fascinating and wonderful and intoxicating. Araki infuses these characters with their own worlds; the music in White Bird in a Blizzard always comes from Kat’s headphones, and is period correct, the soundtrack littered with 80s goth-pop, ethereal and drifting in and out of scenes as she walks in and out of them.

Eva Green is haunting as the mother, the titular character, sort of — she appears like a phantom in doorways, with a grin and a vacant but menacing stare. For that matter, the whole cast is brilliant. Araki has a way with actors that is unlike almost anyone else; James Duval is maybe his greatest conduit, speaking slowly and stupidly and full of this dim-witted profundity. Shailene Woodley, often so stuffy and haughty in what she is doing, reeks of this wonderful kind of angst and bratty endearment. Early on, her voice-over goes, “I was full of raging hormones, and just as I was coming into my own body, my mother was leaving hers.” She speaks in cliches — everybody does — which would make you cringe if it weren’t so spot-on to the sound of an intelligent teenager’s diary entries.

I love White Bird in a Blizzard not because it adds up; it does not. I dare not think what others will say about it, or have. It springs a lot on you in its last act, and it expects you to roll with it, to see that it is emotionally sound, if not logically. It expects you not to get mad for being made the fool. It expects that you’ve empathized with these characters enough to know that they’re not stupid, and that they’re not all bad, and even when they are, they are only human. But I can’t talk about that much here, because they all grow an incredible amount — expanding like sponges in water full of unhappiness, ultimately wringing out with resolution and sighs. Things may as well always live unsolved, for all the good the mystery of knowing the truth does for you.

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