A good mystery is never about the reveal. The reveal is a backdrop, or a catalyst for characters to be jerked out of complacency and into orbit. Circumstances of chaos and desperation deliver them from one point to another, always the same shore, regardless of what answers they uncover over the course of the journey. If a good mystery does its job, the explanation won’t have any bearing on the experience leading up to it.
In White Bird in a Blizzard, 17-year-old Kat (Shailene Woodley) begins grappling with the curious vanishing of her volatile mother Eve (Eva Green) almost immediately. She finds her doormat father Brock (a supremely sensitive Christopher Meloni) sitting alone in their immaculate late-‘80s suburban living room, staring catatonically beyond their catalog décor and barely getting the words out: “She’s gone.”
On the surface, Kat is a resilient and steely fortress; her initial reaction to Eve’s disappearance is rational (“She’s probably at the store or something”), but she gradually devolves into deep denial. In her sessions with a therapist (Angela Bassett) or hangouts with her friends Beth and Mickey (Gabourey Sidibe and Mark Indelicato), the event barely resonates. Flashbacks and snow-coated dream sequences tell a different story, however, as Kat and Eve’s dynamic is certifiably shambolic.
“I’m tougher than I look,” Kat says to the gruff, older police officer (Thomas Jane) she seduces after her of-age boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) continually fails to perform. The ever-astute Woodley delivers the line with brittle confidence. Kat wants to believe it, but isn’t fooling anyone. Later, after she’s spent a couple years in college, Kat and the cop’s post-coital chatter turns to her still-absent mother. He reveals new theories about what exactly happened that Kat isn’t ready to hear. She’s more comfortable in the uncertainty.
It’s when the answers enter reality that the case in Kat’s consciousness is re-opened, when she was seemingly content to move on. Shedding light on certain accusations activates in Kat her need for trust, and affirms its growing absence in her life. Her fear isn’t based on whether those around her are less innocent than they seem, but whether she can continue relying on them. It demonstrates how much she’s repressed about her childhood trauma. Eve’s disappearance both fuses and frays Kat’s most important relationships in life. It’s heartbreaking regardless of whatever truth might be buried beneath them.
The film is directed by Gregg Araki, whose scintillating portrayal of disaffected youth in films like Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere garnered him a healthy cult following in the ‘90s, even earning him the chance to write and direct a failed pilot for MTV in 2000. His films, which also include Smiley Face and Kaboom, are often the pop rocks of cinema, quick, rainbow-colored jolts to the palate. He has fun, which can unfairly be mistaken for juvenility. Rip a page out of any original Araki screenplay, and the dialogue, so rich with punk slang and insults, reaches Shakespearean levels of poetic quotability.
But with his new one, Araki is in Mysterious Skin mode. Like that 2004 film, widely considered his best, White Bird in a Blizzard is adapted from a novel and tackles content perhaps deserving of a smidge more sensitivity than is his M.O. But Araki hardly directs with anonymity. He ably adopts the material and fosters it as his own, keeping its existing trajectory intact while wrapping his sensibilities snugly around it. Beth and Mickey, for example, are two hilariously over-the-top fringe kids who could have easily been transplanted from Araki’s previous teen opuses. The same is true of the expansive New Wave cuts that populate the soundtrack and help color the late-‘80s/early-‘90s backdrop, with notable score supplementation by Cocteau Twins founder & Mysterious Skin and Kaboom composer Robin Guthrie.
Even as Araki shifts tones unexpectedly, his most consistent and overlooked stamp is as clear as ever here. Whether it’s in a teenage nuclear nightmare like Nowhere or an explicit, visceral drama about child molestation like Mysterious Skin, Araki has an unwavering affection for all of his characters, no matter how ridiculous, reprehensible, or flat-out stupid their behavior may be. No filmmaker has skirted the rim of exploitation so intimately for so long without being outright exploitative.
Green perpetuates her reputation as one of the most fiercely uncompromising acting talents working today. She’s often the luminary in whatever film is lucky enough to be elevated by her presence. It’s equally true of Woodley, who earlier this year emotionally eviscerated audiences in The Fault in Our Stars. As in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, she tends to be the emotional hub, leaving it to her co-stars to keep in step with her, which ends up improving their performances.
To watch Woodley and Green, two eyes of an emotional acting storm, whirl around each other is apocalyptic. Their scenes are palpably destructive and mesmerizing. Green has created one of the most deliciously ferocious movie moms, while Woodley matches Green’s hysterics with an equally pitched yearning to be heard. At times, it’s as if both are spliced in from different dimensions, which can be disorienting, but only helps elucidate the tenuousness of their relationship. It’s carefully choreographed chaos, and allows for both actresses to reach previously undiscovered plateaus in their careers.
White Bird in a Blizzard is a vital coming-of-age piece first, and a mystery second. It plants seeds rather than drops hints, and sets a course toward inevitability, making the outcome more poignant. Its payoff is not in the reveal or how it tricks or appeases the audience, but in how it leaves the characters, which is what the best mysteries do.