In White Bird in a Blizzard, director Gregg Araki fashions images that ideally channel the dreamy, wounded, stifled symbolism of the title. Set primarily in 1988, in a suburb familiar to the suburbs of many a disenfranchised American movie, the film is at its most inventive and energetic when showing us how characters inadvertently wear garments that match the oppressively color-coordinated objects in their homes. Kat (Shailene Woodley), a beautiful teenager mourning the disappearance of her increasingly unhinged mother, Eve (Eva Green), memorably wears hot-pink lipstick that syncs up with the splashes of color on her pillowcase. Shortly before disappearing, Eve wears a sexy rouge blouse that contrasts, loudly, with the fluorescent green of the window frame that contains her like a bug pinned to a laboratory sheet. In another scene, Kat’s blue slacks identically match her blue bed sheets, while her red blouse corresponds with the red in a picture frame behind her.
The house itself, presided over by Kat’s father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), is an unsurprising yet evocative monument to uncomfortable sameness. One can occasionally spot the filmmakers having fun with the exactitude of the placement of paint cans or stacks of newspapers, which are ironically neat and proper in a manner that recalls the films of John Waters or Tim Burton. The walls are painted in off-green yellow hues, which familiarly complement the woody browns of the furniture and the drawers and the paneling to offer yet another testament to the imprisoning dimensions of yuppie ennui.
Unfortunately, these aesthetic tics are the entire movie. Araki has softened up quite a bit over the course of his career, evolving from a romantic nihilist to a kinder, gentler formalist who allows his once-scalding despair to be expressed in what his films pointedly don’t say. In the case of White Bird in a Blizzard, the director doesn’t predictably, distastefully ridicule suburban parents who work or tend house all day; instead, the anger, and sadness, are baked into the compositions of the sets. But this empathetic decency, which was revelatory in Mysterious Skin, doesn’t have anything to play off of here. White Bird in a Blizzard, a coming-of-age mystery that contrasts Kat’s blossoming womanhood with Eve’s declining desirability (a conceit that you will have to accept as a theoretical, considering that Eve is played by the decidedly comely Green), suggests a hothouse melodrama that’s been drained of the hothouse, the melodrama, and any other discernably dramatic stakes. All that remains is moping, which is further narcotized by narration that, best case, tells us things we already knew, and, worst case, drains potentially subtle scenes of their ability to surprise, such as a flashback when Kat goes to work as a little girl with Brock and is stunned to see her old man in a context in which he’s quite clearly appreciated.
White Bird in a Blizzard is missing an essential pulse; there’s no friction to it, and, as beautiful as the film can be, it’s hard to forget that you’ve seen all of this before, in movies like The Ice Storm, American Beauty, and Donnie Darko, all of which had more charismatic heroes. Woodley, who showed promise in The Spectacular Now, can’t find a way to play recessive uncertainty without seeming recessive and uncertain as a performer. She has a good moment opposite a terrific Thomas Jane in a seduction scene that has little bearing on the rest of the film (it seems uncomfortably designed to show us Woodley’s breasts and to play to a familiar older-man/younger-girl fantasy), but otherwise the actor is casually upstaged by almost everyone else in the film. Kat’s dwarfed by her surroundings, which is appropriate given the title, but not in a fashion of any stature; as misfits go, she’s awfully square.