by Haley GoetzWhite Girl is a film about agency. It is about power, race, class and sexuality. Most of all, however, it is a strong critique on white privilege and gentrification. Elizabeth Wood, in her first feature-length foray, presents a New York City that many filmmakers know about but choose to overlook. Told through the eyes of Leah (played by Morgan Saylor of Homeland fame), the film is about a high-spirited and sexually liberated college sophomore who has recently moved to the neighborhood of Ridgewood in Queens. When Leah meets Blue (played with great intensity by Brian “Sene” Marc), she sets off on a bittersweet lullaby of a story. Blue was just Leah’s weed hookup, but as the heat of the summer intensifies, their relationship develops. They enter a romantic fling, and Leah brings him to a party one night where he can easily sell large amounts of cocaine (which he sells to help pay for his ailing grandmother). Following this debaucherous party, Blue gets arrested by an undercover cop, and it’s up to Leah to decide what to do.
Wood imbues her intense debut with several thematic undercurrents. Most prominent is the theme of white privilege. Leah is introduced as a girl who doesn’t have to struggle to get by. The only real concern she and her roommate Katie (India Menuez) face is where to get more drugs. Leah doesn’t have any huge ambitions, she doesn’t have a paying job (she is, however, an unpaid intern at a BuzzFeed-esque magazine), and it’s implied that her new Queens apartment is paid for by her parents back in Oklahoma City. When asked by Blue why she left her upper-middle-class home behind to come to New York, Leah nonchalantly replies with a sort of “Why not?” To her, living in a Latino neighborhood on the brink of gentrification is just another fun adventure. She doesn’t realize the struggle Blue and his two friends Nene (Ralph Rodriguez) and Kilo (Anthony Ramos) face on the streets every day as low-income Puerto Rican kids.
Even though Leah is naive of her predicament, she composes herself with utmost confidence. Her power lies in her composure and no more fully does this show than through the variety of sexual encounters Leah has throughout the course of the film. From an office tryst with her boss, Kelly (Justin Bartha), to an intimately provocative dance with Blue in a nightclub, Leah is in full control of her sexuality (until a dark moment toward the end of the film), and boy does she love it. This character Wood constructs is markedly different from most female protagonists in film. Leah is not controlled by sex, nor is it the only thing she strives for in life. Instead, she merely finds it to be another way to have fun.
With this debut, Wood already shows a great talent for directing. She has a knack for understanding the inner and outer conflicts of each character she features. Wielding this high level of expertise and insight, Wood is able to construct an extremely intimate portrait of youth gone awry. The cinematographer of White Girl, Michael Simmonds, works with the characters in the same way that Wood wants to — which is to say, most of the film is shot in extreme close-up. While this stylistic choice may become disorienting in any other film, it strongly benefits White Girl. Since the film is a character study, it’s far more useful for it to be shot at close range. The cinematography only heightens the various themes of the film, and it becomes a theme in itself; life should be viewed in close-up, and it should be disorienting, and it should have fast transitions (at times).
Saylor holds this film on her shoulders. It’s easy to feel for her character, as she’s wildly expressive through both her dialogue and her actions. There is never a moment where the camera is not seeing what Leah is doing, but it’s not just Leah that the audience is led to focus on. Many of the film’s emotions are also gleaned from Blue. Here is a kind young man who just happens to be doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Blue doesn’t want to live the lifestyle that he does, but he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Even though he’s not featured half as much as his romantic interest, the audience feels for Blue just as much as they feel for Leah. The energy of White Girl comes directly from Leah and Blue’s interactions.
Go see this film while it’s still playing, especially if you’re young (but not too young) and looking for adventure. While White Girl deals with very mature and intense themes, it is also energetic, youthful, and yes, even hopeful. Leah learns much about herself and about the world by the end of the film (as a well-written character should), and she’s presented as someone who is just as flawed as anyone else. With captivating performances by two up-and-coming actors and a fierce new directorial vision, White Girl is a film that should remain in the public consciousness for a long time.
4.5 out of 5 stars