Katrina "Kat" Connor (Shailene Woodley), the heroine of Gregg Araki's offbeat drama White Bird in a Blizzard, is a teenager from an abusive suburban home. We meet Kat in 1988 during her senior year of high school. Her dad Brock (Christopher Meloni) is a meek, passive figure, a zero who never stands up for himself and swallows whatever life hands him; her mom Eve (Eva Green) is a wild-eyed nutcase who lapses into unbridled fits of rage -- systematically humiliating Kat, attempting to seduce the young woman's boyfriends, and committing various acts of lunacy. Despite her upbringing in this bell jar, Kat exhibits surprisingly sane and controlled behavior, although she makes a questionable decision by getting erotically involved with a cop (Thomas Jane) more than 20 years her senior. Eve soon vanishes from the house sans any explanation, and police searches of the area turn up empty-handed. Several years later, after Kat returns home on a break from college, circumstances prompt her to search for answers concerning her mom's whereabouts.
This is a startling movie, not because of its subject matter, but because of its strange blend of tones. As a scribe, Araki adapted Laura Kasischke's 1999 sophomore novel of the same title. The Kasischke book told a straightforward chronicle with a great deal of dramatic gravitas, but Araki doesn't easily lend himself to earnestness. He's instead prone to snide, sardonic irony -- an off-kilter view of the world, with deliriously grotesque characters behaving in nutty ways, and played with an edge of noirish humor (think Hal Hartley meets Todd Solondz). A project with Kasischke and Araki's names on it therefore seems odd and unexpected; they sound like uneasy bedfellows, and when one imagines an Araki adaptation of White Bird, it's impossible not to envision an erratic, patchwork motion picture that veers uncomfortably between sarcasm and poignancy.
Well, yes and no -- this is and isn't true of the film. The first 40 minutes or so of the movie work satisfactorily enough. Araki's tone here resembles the work of Australian director Shirley Barrett, especially her 1996 black comedy Love Serenade. As in the Barrett picture, Araki finds and elicits amusement by reveling in the complete inanities and indignities of life, even in such minutiae as ludicrous names (Jane plays Detective Scieziesciez) and the interior decor of a frumpy housewife who resides next door to the Connors -- should we be surprised that her home resembles a time capsule from 1973 when the homemaker is legally blind? And in another scene, Detective Scieziesciez tells Kat about the most horrific calamity he ever witnessed on the force -- a 300-pound man who set himself on fire and took three days to melt because of his gargantuan weight -- "just like a giant human candle." This is jet-black humor reminiscent of Jan Wolkers' novel A Rose of Flesh, which also pulled laughs from bizarre, gory news stories that lay just on the other side of the implausibility line. You actually begin to feel a bit ashamed because the humor is nasty and wicked, but as you experience it, you may end up laughing despite your good judgment.
Several of the more sincere events, most of them in the picture's second half, also deliver a satisfying emotional impact of their own accord. Especially in the film's later scenes, Kat's heartbreaking confrontations with the dysfunction in the Connor family are assuredly not cued for guffaws; to Araki's credit, he plays such developments with a straight face and an even hand. He's abetted by spectacular work from Woodley, who divests herself of all interior reservations and lets her emotions fly; this is an unfettered, fearless performance, and it qualifies Woodley as one of our finest young actresses. She's even more impressive here than she was in The Spectacular Now, though like that flawed movie, this one seems unworthy of her dramatic range.
Unfortunately, the two halves of the movie do eventually begin to clash vis-à-vis each other, and Araki never finds a satisfactory way to resolve this discord. As a result, the picture contains several sequences that feel tonally awkward, as in a flashback in which a freakishly crazed Eve wanders into Kat's bedroom in the middle of the night and rips the covers off the poor humiliated girl's nude body -- all while ranting, raving, and foaming at the mouth. This should be devastating to witness, but it isn't -- Araki and Green push so far over the top that the latter's orgiastic fit begins to mirror Faye Dunaway's tirades as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. As portrayed here, Eve doesn't come off as a credible person. She's a cartoon character, but we can't dismiss the scene with jocularity either, because the mother's actions are achingly sad and even teeter on the edge of sexual assault. When Kat experiences this horror, she isn't dismissive, in the vein of "oh, my nutty mother" -- she shrieks, sobs, and quakes with fear, like a young girl enduring the most traumatic sort of violation. Again: Araki should have defined and sculpted the tone of the scene more carefully and responsibly -- he should have either encouraged Green to subdue her performance, thereby bringing the scene within the realm of the credible, or decreased the severity of the mother's actions and Kat's response to leave the door wide open for irony.
Incongruities such as these -- and, more broadly, between the tongue-in-cheek presentation in the early stages of the film and the more straight-faced, heartfelt developments that come later -- are what prevent the picture from taking off. Still, it isn't a conventional movie or in any way dull or boring; you're intrigued while you're watching it, which is more than one could say about, for example, Araki's disastrous Anna Faris stoner comedy Smiley Face. What is onscreen works just well enough to divert and engage, but not enough to be counted as a complete success.