WHITE GIRL (2016) review
written by: Elizabeth Wood
produced by: Gabriel Nussbaum
directed by: Elizabeth Wood
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: January 23, 2016 (Sundance), September 2, 2016 (limited) and September 30, 2016 – October 6, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
“I really like drugs,” says the young white girl late one night, half-giggling, after asking three Hispanic guys who live across the street from her if they, “have any weed – or anything?” This is not going to go well, but that was obvious going in to “White Girl”, the feature-length directorial debut of writer/director Elizabeth Wood, which is being compared to Larry Clark’s “Kids” (it says it on the poster!), which depicted a raw and shocking look at New York City youth. Since you can’t really say that Wood’s film has as much potent commentary as Clarke’s provocative early 90s indie, the comparisons are solely due to the rampant sex and drug use in this film. Wood may show promise as a director here, but her screenplay unfortunately found me less and less interested in this “White Girl”.
The summer before their sophomore year in college, Leah (Morgan Saylor “Homeland”) and her friend, Katie (India Menuez “Transparent”) move into an area in Ridgewood, Queens, where two white girls they are clearly out-of-place. The two pull in with their moving truck – Leah with her long, dyed white-blonde curly hair and Katie with her straight red hair and unshaven armpits – and they immediately and obviously stick out in this sketchy part of town. The three Hispanic dudes Leah will eventually approach for drugs just stand around and watch (grabbing their crotches here and there) as these two white girls unload their stuff, like heavy boxes and a huge couch. They’re more waif-like than Amazons, so they could clearly use some help, but these Three Amigos are just there for the show.
Maybe it’s the parent in me, but questions immediately arise during this opening. Now, I know there are independent, mature young women and men out there, who go off to another city for college or university without the involvement of parents. They exist. I get it. These two white girls though, are not such individuals. Which led me to question if Leah’s mother (the only parent ever mentioned, whom Leah interacts with a couple times over the phone) had any idea where her daughter was living in NYC. Her father isn’t mentioned and that’s understandable, I suppose. Some fathers are out of the picture or there may only be just her mother. Still, and maybe it’s just me, there’s no way my daughter would be moving to another city for school without me a.) checking out where she’s moving to and b.) physically being present and helping her.
But, I guess in a story that’s about to delve into the morally bankrupt, addictive behavior and the flat-out bad decisions of a cute, out-of-place, white girl whose sole focus is: drugs, sex and excess – well, there’s certain elements that just don’t factor in.
In no time, Leah approaches the aforementioned Hispanic dudes after realizing she and Katie are out of weed. This white girl figures, because these dudes hang out on the sidewalk, wear baseball caps backwards and low-riding jeans, they must be in possession of some drugs. She thinks she’s savvy, resourceful even, but she’s blinded by racial stereotype. Initially, these three Hispanic dudes size her up (knowing full well she stands out) and then the good-looking one – who will later introduce himself as Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) and turns out to be the film’s most interesting, multi-dimensional character – steps forward and decides to screw with Leah (figuratively initially, literally later on obviously) and turn down her offer to buy weed of them.
It’s clear that Blue and his bros, Nene (Ralph Rodriguez) and Kilo (Anthony Ramos), see Leah for what she is – a naive and dumb white girl. One would think that this trio knows this kind of girl leads to trouble and to send her off to find her cravings elsewhere, but Leah is alluring to Blue and next thing you know they’re having sex on her roof. As their purely physical relationship speeds through a red, the characterization of these two characters begin to split in two different directions, one of which reverses our expectations.
While Leah continues her predictable path to self-destruction, offering a clueless strung-out “it’s gonna be okay” responses to magma hot situations, it’s refreshing to find that Wood’s screenplay gives Blue more than the gangbanger/drug dealer portrayal. It may not help that drugs and alcohol are large part of their explicit relationship, but it’s a highlight to see Blue treat Leah with respect and a vulnerable sincerity. He sees her as something greater than she sees herself, nicknames her “Shorty” (for some reason) and is interesting in taking her out to a nice Italian dinner. He clearly wants something more out of their relationship, something she cannot provide.
And then things go south for Blue when he’s arrested for selling drugs and jailed due to two previous convictions on his record. He could face years in prison if Leah doesn’t figure some things out, like what to do with the pile of cocaine Blue’s dealer (a fearsome Adrian Martinez) is expecting him to flip. It also involves finding worthy legal representation, which she lands in the form of George Fratelli (Chris Noth) a smarmy yet capable lawyer. Her toxic boss Kelly (Justin Bartha), at the magazine she’s interning at, takes her around town to late-night parties where upper class white folks are willing to shell out hundreds for some coke, but since Leah is a user and abuser herself, things don’t go very well.
The film relies and survives on the sudden relationship between Leah and Blue. Saylor and Marc are good together, but Marc winds up being the standout here. He delivers an openness and authenticity to the role that is surprising. Yes, what is written bucks the stereotypical depiction of a Hispanic dude from the hood, but it’s Marc(who can currently be seen in Netlfix’s “Luke Cage” series) that really elevates the role. He makes their relationship very interesting to watch and when he’s not on-screen, you feel it. As for Saylor, I’m on the fence with her. I don’t know if it’s the vapid, troubled character she’s playing (someone I guess we’re supposed to feel for) or what, but I found myself put off by her predictable and familiar choices. I translated her expressive pauses as uncertainty, but again, it could just be me not liking her characterization.
We don’t get much about her background, but it can be easily assumed Leah comes from Midwest white privilege. There could’ve been more social commentary here, especially when we’re shown how differently a Hispanic dude is treated and how a cute white girl is treated, despite them both getting caught with or doing drugs.
As a director though, Wood shows great promise. She is someone who is attentive to the details of character interaction and doesn’t hold back from taking risks with edgy material. Her screenplay is loosely based on her own experiences as an adolescent and while it could be seen as catharsis, it’s hard to glean any kind of cautionary tale from the film primarily because there’s never really anyone in Leah’s life to offer her help (not that she shows any signs that she wants it) or give her a break. Leah’s friendships are shallow, she brushes off her mother and she allows herself to be used for sex. It’s obvious she has serious problems, but that understanding doesn’t make it any easier to watch her. So, it left me asking – why tell such a story and to what end?
“White Girl” (the title is also street slang for cocaine) is an exhausting, frustrating and difficult watch. I guess there is an audience for this kind of twentysomething debauchery, but I can’t count myself in that group. If it wasn’t for my discovery of Marc’s work here and Wood’s impressive directing, this film would be a total loss to me.