New Queer Cinema cult hero Gregg Araki's incursion into mainstream film, which began with the 2007 stoner comedy Smiley Face, continues with White Bird in a Blizzard, an enjoyable, if uneven, adaptation of Laura Kasischke's coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl whose mother vanishes into thin air.
The film is set in bourgeois suburbia in the 1980s, a world Araki has mocked and assaulted with his wonderfully punk-infused, sexually adventurous dramedies, The Living End, Totally F-ed Up, and The Doom Generation. It features a memorable performance by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as Kat Connor, a 17-year-old beauty struggling to emerge from the shadow of her narcissistic mom, Eve (Eva Green), an elegant, slim hausfrau with movie-star looks and attitude to burn.
"She named me Katrina so that she could call me Kat because she always wanted a pet," says Kat, who narrates the story. "For years I thought I was her pet."
Highly intelligent, well-educated, and thoroughly bored with her lot, Eve stares at Kat's body with envy, searching for the slightest sign of a blemish or unwanted fat. But her favorite pastime is to get drunk and insult her milquetoast husband Brock (Christopher Meloni).
"I could never remember my mom looking at my dad with anything but contempt," says Kat.
One day, Eve is gone, leaving nary a note, sign, or message to her family.
Kat doesn't seem shocked or depressed by the disappearance. As she tells her therapist (Angela Bassett), she feels relieved.
Araki's films have never been known for their subtlety. Think Douglas-Sirk-meets-Johnny-Rotten. He tries to rein in his tendency for the baroque in White Bird in a Blizzard, but he pushes the story too far in the direction of the grotesque.
He falters when it comes to the heart of Kasischke's story: Kat's difficult emotional journey from awkward teen to self-aware, self-critical young adult. Instead of giving us an insight into her inner life, Araki illustrates her growth through her choice of sex partners, which include her lovable if clueless stoner neighbor Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and the crudely sexy middle-aged police detective (Thomas Jane) assigned to look for her mom.
Green is a delight to watch as Eve, a woman always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) seems utterly lost, portraying Brock as a cross between Norman Bates and Smithers, the sneakily obsequious personal assistant to Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons.
But this is Woodley's show. The 22-year-old actress seems fearless in a difficult role that demands she strip for several sex scenes. Yet she seems to have a hard time showing vulnerability, and her Kat comes across as too hard, too jaded.
It's good to see Araki straddle the divide between his cult films, which are over-the-top as a matter of course, and more mainstream drama. But he has yet to strike the right mix between outrageous satire and serious drama about social outrage.