“Now you know why I don’t want a daughter,” is what the late 20s woman in front of me laughingly commented to her pal as they left the theater, after viewing Elizabeth Wood’s writing-directing debut White Girl on Saturday. As a parent to a brightly imaginative and loving daughter – the only notion I had in such regards is - I don’t want a life like that for my daughter. The film overflows with consensual sex – which seemed to bring the characters moments of elation only to be followed up by scenes depciting over the top drug abuse, rape and even murder. For as grim and depressing as the film became – the saddest point of the entire evening occurred during the Q&A when after being asked what inspried the film Wood frankly said that much of the film happened to her. The room went deathly silent and the moderator moved on to the next question and that’s where I feel it’s importat to begin my review.
Wood accomplished what most debut writer-directors only dream of – she captured great perforamnces and laid the foundation for a very entertaining and watchable style that I’m sure her work will continue to build upon. There’s a vibrancy to her style which bleeds with color in the club scenes only to be countered by the harsh light of day the characters force themselves through in anticipation of the the coming eve where they can come alive again as drugged up vampires they are. When it comes to the drug use – the scenes and experiences blur together, fast paced and rarely taking a breather. There’s a vibrancy to it – helped by the excellent editing and music selection the film implores, yet such a style leads to the root of the narrative problems that emerge. The film is a present tense tale with practically no room for any amount of perspective by protagonist Leah (Morgan Saylor).
After moving into a trashy Queens neighborhood she reaches out to a group of Puerto Rican drug dealers who seem friendly enough to help her resupply her stash. In the same day that her boss practically raped her at work after getting her high, later that eve she quickly falls for Blue (rapper Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) who she has consensual sex with after he treats her right. He’s a drug dealer with a heart type of character and seemingly the only positive male influence in Leah’s life (we never hear anything about her father). When Leah realizes that white kids would pay 3 times as much for Blue’s coke she brings him to a party where he has quite a profitable night. And right as their relationship is starting to go places, he’s arrested by an undercover cop, thus clarifying Leah’s journey for the rest of the film as she rushes to do anything within her power to help get him out of jail. In order to raise the money needed, she becomes a drug dealer so she can pay Blue’s expensive legal bills. Her drug use heightens and she continues to lose control over her life and eventually falls victim to rape and violence in her pursuit of freeing Blue.
And this brings us back to perspective. Leah, like the film, is moving too fast to really have any sense of perspective or even a learning curve for that matter. There’s a great urgency seen in present tense narratives – yet the pitfall is that if the character isn’t learning anything at all from scene to scene – the traps they walk into will over time seem more than a little obvious to the audience, which is what happens here. All the great groundwork laid out earlier seems lost as we watch Leah stumble through the second half of the film. While it can be argued that perspective is dificult to find in the present tense – here even basic common sense is thrown out the window as Leah chooses to put herself into each new dangerous and humiliating predicament. This doesn’t seem to be done in a self-destructive sense so much as as the audience is asked to suspend their dispbelief that Leah can’t see the dark turns ahead that are so glariingly obvious. Regardless of the truths depicted on screen from Wood’s own life, while she succeeded in illuminating them as cautionary tales – she essentially neglected her responsibility to filter the rawness of these events into moments that constitute a solid enough character arc for Leah that audiences could truly invest in. While we sympathize with her during these repeated humiliations, we’re frustrated to see her so naively choosing paths that by the middle of the film she should simply know to avoid.
Consensual sex is never presnted in the light of fetish in Wood’s realm, but rather in a stylized documentary fashion whereby it’s simply another drug for her characters to consume. The film pushes boundaries in its depcition of sex and will likely garner a NC-17 rating from the pro-violence but sex-shy MPAA. To her credit it seems as if Wood was trying for an R, which she’d still likely be denied, namely in a scene where she creatively framed Leah and another woman snorting cocaine from the surface of an man’s erection. Without really seeming pornographic but instead more cinema verite’ Wood conveyed the act using the bare amount of information needed to do so, but via angles mainstream audiences rarely see as sex like this isn’t presented too often. Maybe it’s the tone of the drug fueled sex scenes throughout which play as more animalisticevents deviod of eroticism whereby the images may shock but the lack of intimacy allows the audience enough distance to safely process them. Thankfully when Leah is raped Wood mostly focuses on reflections from a window.
The talent in front of and behind the camera here is undeniable. Saylor and Wood succeed in creating a vibrant film with a memorable character that we empathize with so much – that we’re simply left wanting a little more from. –Jeff Goldsmith
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FROM THE SUNDANCE GUIDE:
The cross section between New York’s mean streets and its gentrified alcoves makes for potent social satire in Elizabeth Wood’s tough and exhilarating debut. Equipped with platinum blonde hair and a winning smile, college girl Leah (Morgan Saylor) seeks out pleasure in any form. She has two weeks before fall semester, and in between getting high with her roommate and snorting lines with her boss, she finds time to hit it off with a handsome, young Puerto Rican drug dealer named Blue. Within days, the two are selling dime bags to her affluent white colleagues, collecting fast cash, and living the high life. But their euphoria comes to a grinding halt once Blue is arrested and Leah’s left with a hefty amount of his coke. Does she sell it to save him or use it herself?
Shot with a sharp eye for New York City, White Girl thrashes through an increasingly high-stakes game of hedonism where unspoken socio-economic tensions coupled with a blatant disregard for consequence converge into a shocking commentary on today’s youth culture. Saylor and Wood are forces to be reckoned with, unleashing a torrent of vulnerability and confidence that will leave audiences enticed and unsettled.
Director: Elizabeth Wood
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Wood