“Small town girl comes to the big city” is the beginning of many a cautionary tale that traditionally ends up very bad for its clueless heroine. But Elizabeth Wood’s dynamic and disturbing debut White Girl subverts the trope by staring down the privilege that saves its aggravating anti-heroine from a grim (and arguably deserved) conclusion.
White Girl is crusty with sweat, smudged eyeliner, cocaine, and cum.
Homeland’s Morgan Saylor gives the unnerving performance of a lifetime as Leah, the titular Okie girl, who no sooner jumps out of the moving van in Ridgewood, Queens, than she’s making eyes at the Puerto Rican bad boy down the block. Spoiling for trouble, Leah takes the few short weeks before college starts to revel in late night clubbing, public sex, and cocaine, cocaine, cocaine. When she’s not getting into a Human Resources nightmare with her skeevy supervisor (Justin Bartha), she’s falling hard for Blue (Brian Mac), the dreamy dealer who desperately wants to care for this oblivious wild child.
As Leah flits from Blue’s stoop to the shrieking subway, from the hip offices of her unpaid internship to the dank yet neon-lit dumps of New York’s nightlife, threats streak past her like the nightmarish ferry ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But Wood’s sly story spins to reveal this pernicious party girl carries a threat all her own. Watching the film, I twitched with hatred for Leah, whose selfish ambitions and shocking naiveté make her a time bomb. With the flip of her hair and the twirl of her skirt, she convinces Blue and his crew (which includes Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos) to boost their operation by selling in Manhattan. Looking to impress Leah, her coke-slinging beau takes a massive buy in supply from a volatile big fish (Adrian Martinez). When Blue gets busted, Leah tries to undo the damage by unloading the drugs to pay for a lawyer to get him out. Along the way to making things worse, she involves his friends, her reluctant roommate (India Menuez), and the creep from work.
Leah’s careless cavorting through the grimy underbelly of New York—where cocaine and oral sex are more abundant than cabs—has earned White Girl comparisons to Larry Clark’s provocative Kids and Harmony Korine’s hedonistic Spring Breakers. And Wood pulls no punches. The sex on display is graphic and raw, with Saylor’s body on frequent display, but notably on Leah’s terms. More daring still, Wood and Saylor refuse to allow Leah the out of making her likable.
Her hair flows like frizzy sunshine over her slim pale shoulders and down her twee and often-bared breasts. A smattering of freckles make her seem almost childish as do the girly tops she pairs with scandalously short skirts. Visually, Leah is a sweet young thing running hard at growing up. From the start, she is ruthlessly reckless, obliquely envisioning herself as invincible. While consequences do crash down, she sidesteps most with a flirtatious smile or riotous tears, communicating the film’s infuriating message with a shuddering clarity. Privilege protects her like armor, the debris of her bad decisions bouncing off her and onto those with less. Naturally, it’s a rich white lawyer (Chris Noth in a role that would make Sex and the City fans weep) that not only lectures Leah on privilege and the wild imbalance it places on justice, but also pulls rank in one of the film’s most wretched scenes.
White Girl is dedicatedly deplorable in its decadence and riveting in its rawness. The cinematography, rich with suffocating close-ups, ratchets up the tension through unforgiving proximity. All past tales of girls lost to the terrible big city instantly imbue the film with dramatic weight. But how Wood plays both out to a uniquely unsettling finale is pioneering, thought provoking, and more than a little haunting.