After a pair of characteristically way-out works (Smiley Face,
Kaboom), New Queer Cinema provocateur Gregg Araki returns to the somber tenor of Mysterious Skin with White Bird in a Blizzard. Like Skin, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, White Bird finds Araki adapting a novel with the help of a talented young performer.
Set in a California suburb as the 1980s became the ’90s, White Bird follows 17-year-old Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley, in Depeche Mode T-shirts and Converse kicks) as she deals with the sudden disappearance of her belligerent mother (Eva Green). Recruiting the vamp-like Green to play Woodley’s long-depressed mom (the actresses are only 12 years apart in age) isn’t Araki’s only idiosyncratic casting: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) and Sheryl Lee (of Twin Peaks renown) figure in the action.
Unfortunately, Araki doesn’t make much out of their characterizations; better-served is Christopher Meloni, playing Kat’s bottled-up father, whom Araki decorates with too-short ties and a mustache reminiscent of the one worn by Bill Sage in Skin. Through conversations in which Woodley sits cross-legged on the couch of her shrink (Angela Bassett), White Bird unfolds in a succession of flashbacks and snow-white dreams. Araki’s rigorously storyboarded style alternates between static master shots and direct-address set-ups (actors speaking at the camera) that break down the conversations.
His goal seems to be to investigate the anxious air — the resentments, the disappointments, the secrets — between the members of this broken family. If the results are occasionally broad and schematic, the actors (Woodley especially) are anything but, and Araki has an absolute field day adorning his kitschy, 1950s-ish view of suburban Los Angeles with a string of showoffy colors.