Sundance Film Review: ‘White Girl’

White Girl Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The debauched portrait of a New York college freshman who does everything in her power to get her drug-dealer boyfriend out of jail.

Even if “White Girl” weren’t inspired by incidents in writer-director Elizabeth Wood’s life, it would be a hard pill to swallow. The story of a New York college freshman who hooks up with a Puerto Rican drug dealer, sees him arrested before her very eyes and then proceeds to sell his monster stash of coke in order to pay for his release, Wood’s semi-autobiographical shocker is wall-to-wall drugs and depravity, offered up as proof that white girls can be as “hard” as the best of them. Served up as an extreme survival story, Wood’s gut-wrenching experience packs the same sickening effect as past Killer Films productions “Party Monster” and “Kids,” albeit with even less social value. The sensational style and subject will surely be a selling point, though in the end, such rampant negativity serves little purpose other than to establish Wood’s reputation.

In short, there can be no doubt that Wood represents a brave new voice, just as her onscreen proxy, Morgan Saylor (a petite, doe-eyed blonde best known for Showtime’s “Homeland”), more than proves her fearless attitude toward degrading herself onscreen. And yet, neither one is the “white girl” to which the film’s title alludes. That would be the kilo of cocaine that gets sniffed, sold and sprinkled on genitalia over the course of the film.

Still, by plunging our faces into a cesspool of reprehensible behavior, these two nervy female talents examine the paradox of being a carefree teenager smart enough to be accepted into university, but so idiotic in her life decisions that the worst possible outcomes (arrest, rape, murder) start to feel predictable after a point. At any given moment, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and as the worst proceeds to unfold, this otherwise unbearably realistic horror show actually starts to feel like a comedy.

Certainly it starts on a cheeky enough note, with strange zither music serving up its ethereal mermaid song as Leah (Saylor, in hooker-cut running shorts) and best friend Katie (India Menuez, even more obliviously doll-like) attempt to move into a trashy Queens apartment, making a hilarious spectacle of themselves in front of three bemused Latino neighbors. The laughter dries up fast when, having exhausted her supply of pot, Leah heads downstairs to score some weed from the macho trio always hanging around in front of their apartment.

Hitting it off with the group’s head dealer, Blue (rapper Brian “Sene” Marc), Leah fends off his first attempt to feel her up, only to have Wood jump-cut forward to a scene of them rutting like animals in the alley. This ain’t exactly the stuff of which love stories are made, though the pair have fun getting high and selling hard drugs to her co-workers together. Just to put their tryst into perspective, Leah wastes even less time before hooking up with her boss at Bad magazine (as played by Justin Bartha, making a clear break from his nice-guy typecasting).

Leah’s magazine internship, like her classroom experience, represents a far different reality from the one she’s cultivating in the flophouse she and Katie call home, though in no time, these two pleasure-seeking party girls are mixing the two, inviting Blue and best friends Nene (Ralph Rodriguez) and Kilo (Anthony Ramos) to a Manhattan soiree for bored rich folks. It’s easy to be shocked at first by the sight of people snorting cocaine and having sex in the middle of a nightclub, but when such behavior continues nearly nonstop for an hour-and-a-half, the incredulity settles into a sort of numbness.

That sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer hedonism of it all never quite dissipates, augmented by a nauseating aesthetic in which we’re bombarded not only by the handheld camerawork, but also by a near-constant barrage of noise pollution, occasionally drowning out the dialogue as it ranges from hip-hop to the sound of garbage trucks outside Leah’s window. Wood leverages these potentially assaultive techniques in pursuit of a certain type of realism, leaving no room for humanism or romance in the process. With no intention of constructing an actual relationship, Leah leads Blue on for his drug supply, but after he’s arrested, she can’t help but feel at least somewhat responsible. Determined to get him out of jail, Leah turns to a sleazy lawyer (Chris Noth), whose impossibly high prices she can’t possibly afford, transforming him into yet another sexual predator.

It can be exhausting watching an emerging actress like Saylor permit herself to be abused in so many different ways for so long, even if the white powder is just vitamin C and the recurring sodomy and rape scenes are all pretend. Witnessing situations like this tends to eat away at one’s psyche, and the only thing that makes such footage bearable here is knowing that there’s a bold female helmer behind the camera. Had it come from a man, Wood’s nightmarish vision would no doubt have played more like fantasy, though there are plenty on the audience side who will take prurient interest in watching Saylor snort and screw her way out of her predicament, only to be slammed with the most cynical possible ending.

Sadly, “White Girl” is hardly the lone example of a director — guy or girl, white or otherwise — dredging up the most sordid conceivable material in an effort to penetrate the hyper-competitive, male-dominated film industry. (Eva Husson’s recent Toronto title “Bang Gang” also comes to mind.) More upsetting still, newcomers who pursue this stink-bomb strategy inevitably find themselves obliged to push their films even father toward the extremes.

Like Wood, they claim authenticity and the need to impart a harsh personal truth as their motivation, and yet, in sharing such poisonous personal testimony, they merely clog the world with unneeded negativity. As much as “White Girl” has to offer in raw immediacy, it lacks the distance to offer much in the way of meaningful commentary, distinguishing itself (for the worse) from such earth-shaking social critics as Bret Easton Ellis and Harmony Korine. Attitude like this will get Wood noticed, and the film is sure to find strong champions along the way, but are we any wiser for having vicariously survived such depravity?

Sundance Film Review: 'White Girl'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2016. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production

A Bank Street Films, Supermarche production, in association with Killer Films, Greencard Pictures.(International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gabriel Nussbaum. Executive producers, Christine Vachon, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, David Hinojosa. Co-producer, Matt Achterberg.

Crew

Directed, written by Elizabeth Wood. Camera (color, widescreen), Michael Simmonds; editor, Michael Taylor; music supervisor, Josh Kessler; production designer, Fletcher Chancey; art director, Steve Grise; set decorator, Nicole Watts; costume designer, Rachel Dainer-Best; sound, Thomas Wynn; sound designer, Coll Anderson; visual effects artist, George Bunce; line producer, Petra Ahmann; associate producers, Orlee-Rose Strauss, Pierre Sebaste; assistant director, Yori Towndrowski; casting, Jessica Daniels.

With

Morgan Saylor, Brian "Sene" Marc, Justin Bartha, Chris Noth, India Menuez, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Ramos, Ralph Rodriguez.

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  1. Jack Puckett says:

    Is this reviewer a disapproving parent? No social value? Since when does a movie require a ‘social value’? But even if it didn’t have one, it still makes a worthy story. But this definitely has several. The messages of determination, survival, drug induced mental and spiritual absenteeism. How easily does a person fall into mindlessly and numbly navigating wave after wave of bad drug-induced choices? This happens to lives all over the world, especially to the naive when they don’t get the big picture in the bigger city. And this directorial debut of Elizabeth Wood’s script is astounding for its raw honesty. It falls into the category of Black Snake Moan, and Morgan Saylor excels as the street un-wise college student visiting the wild side. She channels Christina Ricci’s Rae in Black Snake Moan, an equally brave performance. I think this critique didn’t acknowledge, or really even believe, that there’s a real world out there like this one. It seems to be written from the perspective that such a world should be judged without compassion. The only ‘reprehensible behavior” I witness is the insightless perspective of this shallow critique.The world actually became a “bit more clogged” from its unneeded naivete.

  2. billted says:

    Well written review.

    This sounds like a movie by a white liberal woman who thinks that being gross is empowering. But if a man had made this movie they’d be outraged about it. And in typical lib hypocrite fashion she probably justifies it as a cautionary tale while she exploits and glorifies it.

  3. Karin Hasenger says:

    What a tone-deaf review. #whiteman #mansplaining

    • billted says:

      #racebaiting #genderbaiting #libprivilege

      • JH says:

        Because obviously, if anyone brings up the topic of seduction (as is a woman’s prerogative, you know, as it’s always been a man’s), rape, race and white privilege it’s “race baiting”; it’s “gender baiting”, it’s “debauched”. Obviously. Nice aren’t you? Minimising and trying to shut down debate on serious and real issues by, let me guess, someone who is not adversely affected by them, through regurgitaing tired phrases you read on Trump.com. Predictable.

  4. Yaniv Vaknin says:

    Thanks. had a bad feeling about this clunker as soon as i saw the trailer. i’ll be looking forward to skip this garbage.

  5. Kirin says:

    I wish the author had put his bit about the “earth-shattering social critics such as Bret Easton Ellis and Harmony Korine” at the top of his review. I would’ve stopped reading this misogynist bullshit right after that. Dude, if you can’t even find an “earth-shattering” woman to compare Wood to, get the fuck out. If you culturally appreciate the crude, graphic, privileged, sex&drugs “social criticism” that Ellis and Korine release but find yourself morally repulsed by a woman doing the exact same thing from a female perspective, the problem isn’t with the female filmmaker–the problem obviously lies in your view on women.

  6. Charline says:

    Did we see the same Movie? I saw a no-holds barred film by a courageous young director. Wood is telling us the (very topical) story of privilege, it’s excesses and its teflon shield. She is never, ever, out of control, nor is there a gratuitous moment in the entire film. Yes, she holds us on the naked parts, both physical and emotional, and makes us look long at the cost; she makes us uncomfortable because the party girl on the screen is not yet getting taking responsibility for her actions, and someone must. It’s the girl and the audience in the room, and we feel the full weight of the characters bad choices; so much so that the woman next to me whispered, “dear heart, stop it.” This is a movie about cost, shamelessness, and the unspoken inequality of ‘justice.’ There isn’t a bad cop in the movie. Just unequal consequences. And the violence is violences as seen through a female lens. Wood stops your heart, and there isn’t a gun in sight. This is the new view we’ve all been waiting for, maybe it requires a new viewer.

  7. Alisha says:

    One quick note here: Justin Bartha played Stiv Bators in the notoriously rotten CBGB’s movie. As a longtime Dead Boys fan, I can say with authority that Bators wasn’t evil, but an angel, that boy ain’t, either.

    Remember, we are talking about a man who famously introduced “Sonic Reducer” once by blowing his nose into lunch meat and eating it and another time by boredly announcing “I need the money,” and who is best remembered among the LES punk crowd for being fellated by an eager buddy of his producer Genya Raven and a mouthful of Reddi-Whip. So perhaps consider editing your review to note that Bartha’s done his “bad boy” time before.

  8. On the other hand, the media trumpets Virginia Tech freshman (19-year old white girl) who conspired and cooperated in murdering a 13-year old white girl. Depravity and negativity is much a part of everyday life. The “sexuality” in films, not the violence, have quasi-prudes sounding the alarm. “White Girl” speaks to the times we live in…in the REAL WORLD and not The Matrix. The phone is ringing.

  9. Kann says:

    How can I watch this movie?

  10. Fenton says:

    This review is 100% accurate, and I applaud the reviewer for recognizing its fraudulence. This is the problem with many Sundance films; the filmmakers utilize race politics and ‘bold’ subject matter in order to posture themselves as cutting edge, liberal artists who have a say in the matter – when in fact, they and the producers are looking for a hit eager to promote their careers further by the provocative title and a few clueless critics looking to say that ‘this is the edgy film out of Sundance’. No, this film does not have anything interesting to say about the nature of white privilege, gentrification, and minorities in the prison system. The director wears her ‘realness’ as a badge of authenticity (“This is my story”), while claiming to say something of substance. No, this film is NOT like “Kids” at all. No, this film does not know what its saying or presenting. No, this is a vanity project masked as a social critique – the worst kind of film.

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  12. BK says:

    Yeah I kinda of knew it wasn’t about a “white” girl per se but about “white girl” too bad the kids have moved on to calling it Miley Cyrus.

    But depravity for depravity sake is never good.

  13. Joe says:

    (2nd paragraph: “And yet, neither is the ‘white girl’ to which the film’s title alludes”)

    “Neither is the ‘white girl’ to which the film’s title alludes” what? Either finish the thought or properly preface it…

  14. kenfurman46 says:

    Nearly every Sundance review I’ve read trumpets an off putting absurd and shocking but insignificant work designed to showcase the film-makers lack of depth, humanity humor, & compassion for their fellow human kind and a total rejection of any audience appeal.

  15. agcala says:

    This is not the same festival featuring a movie about a farting corpse? When I heard that it somehow reminded me Hillary.

  16. gkn says:

    Haven’t seen it, but thank you for your bluntness regarding the overdose we’ve been getting for some times on this type of film.

    “Dredging up the most sordid conceivable material in an effort to penetrate the hyper-competitive, male-dominated film industry. (Eva Husson’s recent “Bang Gang” also comes to mind.) More upsetting still, newcomers who pursue this stink-bomb strategy inevitably find themselves obliged to push their films even father toward the extremes” is exactly right.

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