It’s hard to watch White Girl without experiencing a creeping sense of anxiety. Loosely based on the adolescent life of writer-director Elizabeth Wood, the film follows Leah (Morgan Saylor), a college student who parties all night and snorts prodigious amounts of cocaine. She and her roommate, Katie (India Menuez), live in Ridgewood as members of the hipster gentrification class. Early on Leah meets Blue (Brian Marc), a drug dealer hanging outside her apartment, and the two begin the tumultuous relationship that drives the narrative as they party, fuck, and push the product.
It’s dispiriting that the first nonwhite people Leah encounters are dealers, but a scene in which she and Blue mark up their drug prices while partying with a white crowd winks at this racial divide. Blue doesn’t seem too much like the usual movie cliché of a hustler (though plenty of stereotypes can be found in his orbit) — he has a delicate quality, with long lashes and fine bone structure, and is less wild than his girlfriend. He ends up getting busted by an undercover cop just after promising to take Leah out for a fancy dinner. His moment of earnest sweetness, hoping to impress Leah with a romantic gesture, is shut down by a system that’s convinced he’s a threat.
In order to get Blue out of jail, Leah enlists a lawyer, George Fratelli (Chris Noth), who is too expensive but plies her with his understanding of discrimination in a world of police who inordinately punish nonwhite men for drug possession. The relationship between Leah and the older, slightly sleazy Fratelli ultimately moves in a disturbing sexual direction that viewers with an inherent distrust of powerful men might not find surprising. Wood is attuned to the ways America’s power dynamics work against young women, yet scenes in which Leah gets money stolen and faces sexual violence feel strangely like some kind of punishment.
You might hope that a film directed by a woman in which an attractive college student constantly uses drugs would identify more with the protagonist than the leering men around her. But Leah is a bad seed, and White Girl won’t ever let us forget it. Wood makes us feel the crowded, pulsing haze of the nightclub, the claustrophobia and the adrenaline, but then Leah takes off her shirt and snorts coke off her internship boss’s dick. This is one of those films that merits a long cold shower afterwards. That might actually be a compliment — Wood wants to provoke.
The glimpses White Girl offers of the relationship between Leah and Katie suggest that the film could have something more to say about female friendship and intimacy. While Katie partakes in many of the same indulgences as Leah, there are moments when she expresses concern for her roommate, and in one of the more affecting scenes, they huddle close in the shower after Leah has a particularly traumatic experience. Saylor and Menuez both have the perfect looks for their roles: Saylor’s baby face and fluffy blond curls impart an angelic quality at obvious odds with her actions, while Menuez has the calm countenance and long red hair of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden. There’s an unspoken bond between these girls. It’s a shame Wood’s film spends so much time on the sleazy forces that might destroy it.
Written and directed by Elizabeth Wood
Opens September 2, Angelika Film Center and Nitehawk Cinema