Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett
Director: Gregg Araki
Writer: Gregg Araki
One of the things that can make any film grating to watch is if there is a lack of investment. If the characters don’t care about what happens to them or what they are going through, why should the audience care? This is the reason why I found White Bird in a Blizzard to be a frustrating film. There is no commitment on its part, nothing compelling or captivating for the audience to hold on to. It attempts to work as both a gripping mystery and as an emotional coming of age story, but succeeds at neither.
The story is about Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year-old girl living in suburbia with her parents. She comes home from school one day to find that her mother (Eva Green) has disappeared without a trace. She recounts flashbacks of the circumstances that preceded this incident which reveal the wild and unbalanced behaviour that her mother had exhibited before and the abusive tendencies she demonstrated towards Kat and her timid, spineless father (Christopher Meloni). However Kat seems unbothered by her disappearance, figuring that her mother has just walked out on her and her father, and simply tries to move on with her life. What frustrated me the most about this story is the severe indifference shown by the main character. The film does make it clear that Kat and her mother shared an unstable, unhappy relationship, but surely an incident of this magnitude would provoke some sort of reaction out of her. Whether it be anger, despair, confusion, concern, contempt, or even relief, an incident as immense, as unexpected, and as alarming as this should surely be met with a little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
Perhaps the emotional blankness in this film results from a lack of investment on the filmmakers’ parts, or it could stem from a lack of understanding of how emotions work in films. One trend I noticed while watching White Bird in a Blizzard was a tendency for the characters to use direct, straightforward dialogue. What I mean by this is that the characters in this film have a habit of explaining exactly what it is they are feeling, what it is that’s happening to them, and what it is they’re going through. Some writers do this because they think that this is how they are supposed to communicate emotion in a film. However, by doing this, they fail to utilize the potential of film as a visual medium. One of the main rules that filmmakers are told to apply is ‘show, don’t tell’. This film tends to have its characters explain their feelings out loud rather than just show them. It isn’t enough for the characters to describe their emotions, they have to actually express them. Otherwise the emotions never register and the audience is thus unable to empathise with the characters. The film understands this to an extent as evidenced by Kat’s dreams about her mother, but apart from them there are barely any other scenes in which the characters are able to achieve genuine human moments. It’s as if the film does not trust its audience to understand and interpret the characters’ feelings and motivations based on their characterisms or their actions and must instead spell everything out.
The dream sequences were the one part of the film that I actually did like a lot and so I think I’ll elaborate on them a bit. In her dreams Kat finds herself in a snow-covered wilderness searching for her lost mother. The film allows the visuals to do all of the talking as the environment provides a reflection of Kat’s feelings: cold, isolated, and lost. Her fragility and vulnerability are shown as she calls out into the empty landscape for her mother and receives no answer. The otherworldly state she finds herself in emphasises how surreal the experience of her mother’s disappearance has been. Woodley, a talented young actress who really deserves to be in better films than this one, shines in these scenes as she depicts the alienated state that Kat has found herself in. If only the rest of the film’s emotion was expressed as strongly as in those scenes.
This could have been a really good film. The drama inherent in this kind of concept was practically gift-wrapped. However the filmmakers either never realised or never understood how to get into the emotional heart of this story. Kat’s feelings for her mother’s disappearance are given a backseat as the film focuses more on her sexual exploits with her dim-witted neighbour and the handsome cop investigating her mother’s case. Even towards the end when the mysterious circumstances surrounding the mother’s disappearance are brought into question and give rise to the film’s mystery, the lack of engagement up to that point prevents the audience’s interest from being captured. Throughout the film I never found myself caring for Kat or the effect, or lack thereof, that her mother’s disappearance had on her.