Review: White Girl
PLOT: A naive young woman moves to Queens, New York and is quickly swept up in a love affair with a neighborhood drug dealer, leading her down a path of addiction and abuse.
REVIEW: After debuting at Sundance this past winter, WHITE GIRL might as well arrive carrying the label "the feel-bad movie of the year." It's a grimy, distressing slice of New York City life that will turn off a large segment of the audience while enrapturing others, thanks to its seedy scenarios, its blunt depictions of sex and violence and its captivating central performance. Or, as is the case with myself, there might be two trains of thought while watching it: the movie certainly works on its own terms while also definitely coming across as trying very hard to provoke furious debate. I suppose it can't be faulted for that, as I'd rather see a movie try to get us worked up as opposed to operating by-the-numbers.
The film is the feature debut of Elizabeth Wood, who evidently based it on some of her own experiences. Yikes to that. WHITE GIRL takes a pitiless look at the terrible things the big bad city can do to a relatively innocent country girl unprepared for its excesses. Leah (Morgan Saylor) has recently moved to Queens for school, as well as an internship at a media company. Almost immediately, she's honed in on by two very different types of predatory men: Her boss (Justin Bartha) is a cavalier yuppie who comes on to her in his office (which she goes along with willingly), while a neighborhood drug dealer named Blue (Brian "Sene" Marc) simultaneously teases and covets her (again, she goes along willingly). She strikes up a passionate romance with Blue, who while an intense fellow is intelligent and resourceful. Leah is swept up in his lifestyle of selling weed in the neighborhood, and it's ultimately her idea for him to take things up a notch by moving into the cocaine game. She has a lot of potential clients for Blue - her upper class boss and co-workers, among them - but naturally swimming in these waters is going to get very dangerous for the two of them.
WHITE GIRL is quick to put Leah in a series of degrading scenarios; almost every man she meets treats her like she's an idiot whose only use can be sex. But Leah puts herself in these positions. Indeed, while the things that occur to Leah are often shocking and remorseless, Leah is usually a participant in her own degradation, and our sympathy for her eventually wavers. Give credit to Wood for not glossing over her protagonist's many character flaws; it would have been easy to just see her as unsuspecting and virginal, chewed up whole by an evil city.
As disturbing as some of it is, there's no doubt WHITE GIRL frequently relishes pushing your buttons. A rape scene toward the end proves to be one ghastly incident too many, hammering home Wood's apparent viewpoint that the entire world apparently wants to use and abuse Leah. It's not that we can't buy this - the real world can be a cruel place to a foolish young woman - but at a certain point Wood's relentless pessimism becomes less about "the real world" and more about shoving our faces in depravity. Narratively, WHITE GIRL isn't exactly adventurous; it just dishes out one sordid sequence after another, and the effect is a bit numbing after a while.
Nevertheless, WHITE GIRL is fairly engrossing, and that's mostly thanks to Morgan Saylor's fearless performance. This is the kind of game-changing role that propels actors into stardom; Saylor wears every emotion on her sleeve and it's never less than completely believable. She's surrounded by a very good ensemble; Brian Marc (apparently a musician-turned-actor) doesn't hit a false note as Blue, who is a more complicated character than we might initially think. Marc is as much of a breakout as Saylor is. Justin Bartha oozes privileged sleaze effectively, and Chris Noth oozes regular sleaze as a disheveled lawyer who helps Leah out... for a price.