Monday, September 12, 2016
White Girl (*1/2)
Written and Directed by Elizabeth Wood
One cannot make the claim that Elizabeth Wood's White Girl puts on any airs. Even its direct title puts an image in the audience's mind of a certain kind of person. Leah, the film's protagonist played with shocking fearlessness by Moran Saylor, is a Oklahoma girl going to school in New York City. After her freshman year, she moves to Ridgewood with her friend Katie (India Menuez), where she purposely ingratiates herself with a young Hispanic man named Blue (Brian Marc) who sells drugs across the street. Leah's courtship of Blue enables both her issues with impulse control and her need for drugs. Leah pushes Blue to make more money as a drug dealer, to move beyond the Brooklyn small time and make the real money in Manhattan. This is a quick and dangerous shift for Blue, and before long, he ends up arrested. The lengths that Leah goes to get Blue a proper lawyer and out of prison takes up a majority of the film. Perhaps its Leah's guilt that brings her to be so committed to Blue's freedom, or maybe it's love. It's hard to tell because writer/director Elizabeth Wood has given us no information in this regard. So many pages are left blank and what we're left with mostly are scenes of graphic sex and copious drug use. Is White Girl meant to be the tale of the numerous women chewed up and spit out by New York City? Is Leah a victim? Are we meant to be sympathetic to her predicament? Wood wants us to figure this out for ourselves, but unfortunately that leaves us with little other than tolerating a teenaged hedonist with seemingly little regard or intelligence for those around her.
There are definitely instances where Leah is the victim of lecherous men who prey upon the declarative nature of her sexuality. She has an internship at a magazine run by a coke addict named Kelly (Justin Bartha) who spends exactly two minutes alone with her before engaging her in lurid physical activity (the level of consent is not very clear, but what is clear is his aggression). There's also the sleazy lawyer (played by Chris Noth) who hangs an intimidating retainer over her head, and a threatening drug dealer named Lloyd (Adrian Martinez), who goes after her when she can't provide the money that the imprisoned Blue owes him. But White Girl also highlights moments of Leah's obtuseness and naiveté, particularly in the way in which she goes about trying to help Blue. Coming to New York City, and later into Ridgewood, allows Leah to indulge in the cultural tourism that she was missing out on in Oklahoma. She plans to sample the taste of Hispanic men not only because of the color of their skin, but also because of the drugs they provide. I found her bafoon-like curiosity with Blue and his drug dealer friends to be so disturbing, especially since there is no evidence that she has any true interest in them as people. How much more does Leah care about Blue than she does Kelly? With both men, she shares drugs and sex. With both men, she convinces them to take on dangerous drug-selling transactions. Her demeanor as a drug-dealing accomplice is embarrassing at best and incredibly stupid at worst, and she walks Blue right into a situation where he can get picked off, and nearly does the same to his two friends.
White Girl is famously based off of Wood's own experiences. I didn't take issue with the believability of the intense situations, nor did I mind the explicitness of the sexuality. Saylor, Marc and Munuez are all at least trying to do good work here, and at the very least it feels like they're doing the kind of work that Wood is asking from them. As for Bartha and Noth, both men have little trouble turning on the kind of scary eroticism that plays right into Leah's hands. But are any of these actors playing a character? For all the nudity and lines of cocaine she snorts, what actual person is Morgan Saylor trying to portray? As I said, this narrative is unclear, and while Wood can say she is striving for objectivity, she's really just letting the narrative get muddled. The truth is, Leah simply isn't intelligent or interesting enough to warrant this kind of film about her. This is a fifteen-minute short stretched over ninety minutes, and what that produces is a film that is complicit in her irresponsible behavior. Leah's sexuality and substance abuse are common, and the film probably is an accurate depiction of that kind of Middle America girl who comes to the city looking for trouble and finds it in spades, but this is a film filled with people who make mistakes and commit horrible acts. Leah is the only person it seems we're asked to feel sorry for. Yes, Kelly and Blue are grown men, responsible for their own actions, but why not hold Leah to the same standard? In the end, Leah is left with what we can assume is guilt or even dread. But she still has her life and her freedom, which can't be said for some of the men she encounters in this film.