White Bird in a Blizzard is a very curiously compromised movie. On one hand it has an intense visual style & a killer late 80s soundtrack that makes the film feel effortlessly cool in its most enjoyable moments. On the other hand its stilted narration & affected try-hard tone makes it feel like all too many recent, underwhelming YA adaptations. It’s both a run-of-the-mill YA coming-of-age tale and a dreamily spooky Lifetime Original thriller. At times I loved every frame I was watching and at other times I felt like I was light-years outside the intended target audience. One thing I can say is that it works a lot better as a campy thriller than as a straight-forward indie drama.
Let’s get the film’s negative influence out of the way first: the acting, mainly Shailene Woodley’s. I have a very difficult time getting on her wavelength. The film begins with her wooden delivery of the line “I was 17 when my mother disappeared” and it’s difficult to tell if her emotionless reading is entirely a choice to portray the character’s teenage faux nonchalance or if she’s just a terrible actress. I can sort of justify her flat, uninteresting vocal style because of the narration’s framing device of a therapy session (those are usually pretty awkward, right?) but she’s not much more relaxed when hanging out with her friends (a demographically diverse pair that’s mostly there to accessorize her white, middleclass background). Once the film’s trashier, Lifetime Original Movie plot twists regarding the days & months that surrounded her mother’s sudden disappearance get to laughably overwrought heights, the labored acting matters a lot less. In fact, it might even help the film’s case. It’s just part of the Lifetime territory.
To the film’s credit, camp or otherwise, director Gregg Araki injects a lot of otherworldly touches to counterbalance the film’s more contrived tendencies. The film’s winterscape dream sequences & leering glorification of shirtless teen flesh (both male & female) feel like glimpses into a much more intense, respectable film. Although Woodley’s narration rarely transcends its dreadful, dispassionate effect, it is put to great use in lines like this description of her parents’ unhappy marriage: “They just went on like that: my mom never coming, my dad jacking off in the basement, all the while pretending everything was fine.” Araki seems to know just what kind of movie he’s making here, mixing the sublimely artful with the dismally tawdry, but I’m not sure he’s entirely successful in getting the point across.
Even though the film doesn’t consistently nail the perfect tone in its dialogue, it does have a perfect soundtrack. There are few ways to win me over quicker than to play a Cocteau Twins song in the opening credits (“Sea, Swallow Me” in this case). The soundtrack is perfect moody 80s teen music through & through, featuring the likes of Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, This Mortal Coil and more. It’s surprising competent touches like the musical cues & Araki’s imagery that make me want to give the film a pass for being so relentlessly cheesy, even early in the proceedings when the YA ennui is in full, obnoxiously self-absobed swing. Once the mystery of the missing mother gets a little more gaudily complicated the movie also becomes a lot more engaging. As a heartbreaking family drama White Bird in a Blizzard fails miserably. As a spooky, oddly artful Lifetime movie with a killer 80s soundtrack, it’s definitely worth a watch.