White Girl

US | 2016 | Directed by Elizabeth Wood

Logline: A college girl moves into Queens, NYC, with a close friend, and quickly becomes involved with a local drug dealer, which leads to reckless behaviour, addiction, and deep trouble. 

Leah (Morgan Saylor) and Katie (India Menuez) arrive in Queens, New York City, and begin unloading furniture and belongings into their new home in a second storey apartment. The local hoods give them the thrice-over, but the girls seem pretty streetwise. It soon becomes apparent they’re less urban savvy, and more party hungry. It’s summer, it’s hot in the city, and class is several weeks away, so it’s time to chill, smoke cones, and get funky with your new neighbours. 

Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc) and his buddies, Nene (Ralph Rodriguez) and Kilo (Anthony Ramos), hang in the street smoking blunts and dealing baggies of “white girl” (coke) to the street urchins. Leah has already been seduced by her sleazy magazine boss, where she’s employed until the start of fall semester, but now Leah wants to be more in control. Much to Katie’s initial annoyance she finds Blue and his cohorts in their living room with Leah. But it’s not long before Leah is being screwed on the rooftop by Blue, and Katie has paired off with Kilo. The partying is in full swing.

This is Elizabeth Wood’s first feature, and she’s based her screenplay on her own experiences as a student which she kept in a journal. It certainly feels autobiographical, and there is an authenticity to the characterisations that reinforces this. The most affecting element of the movie is the moral grey area of all the characters, as in real life, everyone is “flawed”, nothing is black and white. Leah is certainly naive, and she makes the same kind of mistakes many of us might have made when we were young and dumb, or even when we weren’t so young. 

The frankness in which Wood depicts her main characters is refreshing (like snorting coke off your boss's cock in a club toilet, snigger), and thankfully we're seeing more and more of this kind of real-life authenticity within the indie scene. I applaud directors, and even more the actors, who are prepared to step outside their comfort zones in order to provide a movie with a high level of authenticity. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of hedonism and reckless abandon, and I’m reminded of James Toback’s Black and White, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but it’s handled with a strong sense of ownership, and lead by a strong cast. 

Morgan Saylor is terrific in the central role, with her vulnerable looks, then mischievous grin, she’s like a cross between Dominique Swain and Bijou Phillips, from many moons ago. It’s a courageous role, and demanding indeed. Equally good is Menuez. Both actors capture a curious sassiness, confident, yet fragile. The support cast are solid. 

Wood obviously relishes directing the party scenes, several of which take place in a grungy club in Chinatown, where the revellers really let their hair down. These lingering scenes certainly hammer home the excesses of Leah’s drug-pig, promiscuous behaviour, then the cab ride kick-on home in a typical post-club haze. What goes up, must come down, and down it will tumble, hard. But by the movie’s halfway mark it feels like the director is more keen to stay up in the clouds of high, than get down to brass emotional and socio-political tacks. 

Where White Girl really frays is during the movie’s third act and the seemingly rushed ending. Leah is struggling to deal with the consequences of her greed and recklessness, and she’s enlisted the aid of a curious, opportunistic lawyer (played with just the right amount of sardonic humour by Chris Noth), but the ramifications of her addiction doesn’t match the intensity of her partying. In reality the comedown would be far more gruelling, and the consequences of her actions would come back to bite much harder than they do. Wood opts for an easy way out, a rather obvious “rug-pull”. 

The epilogue, however, does make a valiant effort to reign in the hollow reality. If you’re gonna play with the bull, prepare to get stuck by the horns. Yes, there is a commentary on today’s youth culture submerged deep within White Girl, streaked with a very bitter, almost nasty sense of humour. Leah is tragic, at times pathetic even, but somehow she prizes out our empathy, and it’s a surprisingly affecting movie, but ultimately, despite all the good times, a sad one. Wood is definitely a talent to watch, and I look forward to her maturing as a director.