Somewhere between Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers lies the rebellious mood of Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl, a Sundance firecracker that easily finds its place among the cinematic canon of great dramas cut from the good-girl-gone-bad cloth.
With wide-eyed curiosity guiding her, Leah (Homeland’s Morgan Saylor) leaves behind a sheltered life in Oklahoma for a sketchy apartment in New York. A rising college freshman with little direction (she says she “um, maybe” wants to “work in media”) but a palpable hunger for stimulation, Leah’s naivety is matched only by her lack of inhibition. Instead of fearing her new surroundings, Leah engages with them, falling for a street-wise drug dealer, Blue (Denetia and Sene’s Brian Marc), whom she quickly comes to know as a softhearted, sensitive staple on one of the roughest blocks in the city.
Following Blue’s unexpected incarceration, Leah is tasked with tying up the loose ends of her almost-lover, which includes returning a hefty brick of coke Blue borrowed, under the condition of a quick turnaround, from a maniacal drug lord. With a sizeable rescue mission ahead of her, Leah goes to extreme measures to right her man’s wrongs.
Anxious and in need of a fix, Leah resorts to snorting Blue’s coke instead of returning it, simultaneously racking up $13,000 in legal feels while attempting to free him from prison. As she simmers in the consequences of her irresponsibility, Leah is forced to confront the idea that she might actually be useless—a daunting reality for anyone grasp, let alone sheltered millennial slumming the annals of New York City’s drug scene. Naturally, Leah reacts in a way that any teenager, backed into a corner, would: she fibs to get what she wants, whether it’s peace of mind or extra cash from her mother, some 1,500 miles away.
Wood doesn’t fixate on Leah’s cluelessness as much as she shoves our face in it, forcing us to pity, enjoy, or revile as much or as little of her struggle as we choose, so long as we do it from close, uncomfortable proximity. It’s a wise move for a film that, with as much debauchery as it details, could have easily tipped into the realm of cheap exploitation. Instead, Wood channels her energy into creating an immeasurably unlikable character, a beautifully drawn critique of a poisonous mindset plaguing so many young people today. Leah might look like yet another angel-haired innocent doing very bad things, but she’s ultimately a cautionary portrait painted from the worst bits of a reckless generation that’s eager to grow up, but frightened to truly let themselves off the leash.
Though the film’s marketing would have you believe White Girl is a superficial thrill ride through contemporary, radical youth culture, approaching the film with those expectations diminishes the layers underneath. In the end, White Girl is painful because its characters reflect truths no one, regardless of age, wants to accept; that promises can often be empty, that insecure delusion often masks itself as genuine affection. When all is said and done, Leah’s nothing more than a selfish brat getting her kicks where she can, as easy as they come, even if that means facilitating the tragic conclusion to what could have been the love story of her life. White Girl’s closing minutes are a thing of haunting beauty, bringing full-circle the tale of a little white girl telling the kind of little white lies that can make the bluest soul see red. B+