To say that Gregg Araki’s bigscreen version of “White Bird in a Blizzard” isn’t quite what one imagined when reading the Laura Kasischke novel is like complaining that Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” doesn’t capture the models who posed for it. With the exception of Tim Burton, few American directors have maintained a stronger auteurial hold on their careers than Araki, who seizes on “White Bird” as a chance to explore familiar issues of body image, sexual awakening and extreme family dysfunction with his trademark mix of uneasy seduce-and-repel tactics. It’s naughty, campy and wildly uneven — “a film by Gregg Araki,” in other words, with all the commercial limitations that implies.
Whereas Kasischke’s eloquent novel was loosely inspired by a true story, speculating on a Midwest housewife’s sudden disappearance, Araki’s often-clunky adaptation edges the material into a hyper-stylized parallel dimension, where the woman’s teenage daughter must add this traumatic event to her already crowded list of adolescent insecurities.
Identified as being set in 1988, this world looks more like the place where tacky late-’80s home furnishings go to die, a tomb for bad taste in which 17-year-old Kat (Woodley) wrestles with her transformation from awkward butterball to brink-of-legal seductress. With scalpel drawn, Araki is effectively dissecting the mind of the suburban American teen, and yet, instead of doing so in a sterile white laboratory, he conducts his grisly coming-of-age experiments on a series of lipstick-hued sitcom sets (rendered inexplicably dark by “Kaboom” d.p. Sandra Valde-Hansen).
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In the opening scene, Kat comes home from school to find her mother, Eve (Eva Green, deliciously unhinged), suffering a nervous breakdown on her bed. A few days later, Eve is gone entirely, vanished without a trace. Conventional police logic would point to one or two likely suspects. As this is an Araki movie, however, the explanation seems just as likely to be paranormal — an impression reinforced by Kat’s haunting dreams, in which she pictures Eve lying naked beneath a pile of fresh-fallen snow.
Kat is surprisingly unfazed by her mom’s disappearance. The cops send her to a therapist (Angela Bassett), whose consultations help Kat uncover clues within recent examples of her mother’s increasingly erratic behavior. Clearly, Kat isn’t the only one troubled by her recent transition from dumpy girl to desirable young woman. Sexually unfulfilled in a loveless marriage (to a miscast Christopher Meloni), Eve sees herself in Kat, not just envying her emerging good looks, but even going to so far as to openly compete with her daughter.
For some reason — insecurity, perhaps, considering her best friends are played by social outcasts Mark Indelicato and Gabourey Sidibe — Kat has opted to give her virginity to the lughead next door, a chisel-chested Neanderthal named Phil (Shiloh Fernandez, not nearly as hot as Araki thinks he is). Kat could do much better, but hasn’t quite realized the extent of her newfound powers — which explains her bewilderment as she studies her own unfamiliar body before the bathroom mirror. (A fat-suited flashback might have helped, since Woodley herself was never the ugly duckling the film asks us to believe.)
Given Araki’s fetishistic attention to surface details — period-specific T-shirts and song selections for the “normal-acting” teen characters, in contrast with Eve’s campy performance style and oddly out-of-time costumes — it’s not immediately apparent how richly psychological the underlying material is. In fact, it’s easy to be distracted by (and possibly even to dismiss) “White Bird” as a tarted-up Nancy Drew mystery without recognizing it’s a complex take on how teens must break away from their parents to become their own person. When the time comes to assert her own independence, Kat must symbolically eliminate the mother and seduce the father figure — which she does by coming on to the ultra-masculine Det. Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane).
Still, even after the solution is staring her in the face, Kat clutches to her own naivete, refusing to accept the truth about her parents. Sexually, she’s ready to become a woman, while mentally, she can’t quite wrap her head around the sordid family secrets, even as the pic’s last-minute twist explains pretty much everything to those in the audience.