‘White Bird in a Blizzard” develops engine trouble early on, right around the time it asks us to accept Eva Green as a desperate suburban housewife. The Paris-born actress (“Casino Royale,” “Dark Shadows”) is beautiful in that willowy French way, but she has shoulders that seem to stoop under the weight of depravity and eyes that could challenge Death himself to a chess match (Green would win, no contest). Offering her up as an oppressed all-American homemaker with a wimpy husband (Christopher Meloni) and a rebellious teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) is like putting escargot on the menu at Applebee’s.
Green’s character, Eve Collins, goes missing in the first few scenes of Gregg Araki’s drama, and her absence nags at the daughter, Kat, like a toothache. Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, “White Bird in a Blizzard” is told from the girl’s point of view as she explores her sexuality with the stoner kid next door (Shiloh Fernandez) and the ex-Marine police detective (Thomas Jane) tasked with solving the mother’s disappearance. Truth be told, it’s good to see Woodley (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Spectacular Now”) play something other than a sweetie-pie. Kat is not particularly nice and not terribly bright, but she knows what (and who) gets her pulse racing. It’s a neat portrait of a girl playing at being a tart before signing up for a life of bourgeois respectability.
After plowing a willful path of queer teen drama and self-conscious artificiality with 1995’s “The Doom Generation” and other early works, Araki has lost his way in recent years. “Mysterious Skin” (2004) was his best film, the 2007 stoner comedy “Smiley Face” his most conventional, and 2010’s “Kaboom” went straight to video on demand. “White Bird” seems like a halfhearted holding maneuver, a movie unsure of what it’s even about. The most interesting character, the mother, is the hole at the movie’s center, and in flashback sequences, Green gives a genuinely unsettling performance, with moments of madness, sanity, and outrageous sexuality. If Isabella Rossellini’s character in “Blue Velvet” had settled down and had kids, she might look something like this.
Oddly, “White Bird in a Blizzard” turns slowly into a mystery thriller, as Kat starts suspecting that her non-entity of a father may know more than he’s letting on. The intentional blandness of the writing keeps us from wanting to push further, though. Araki peppers the film with interesting faces — Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) as Kat’s high school party pal, Dale Dickey as the stoner’s blind mother, Angela Bassett as a therapist, Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself!) as dad’s new girlfriend — but he gives them too little to do. Only Jane, as the cop who knows exactly what Mrs. Collins’s wayward daughter needs, has the sense of threat the movie is seeking. His and Woodley’s scenes together are dirty and alive.
They’re the only ones that feel that way. With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Araki seems to be revisiting old haunts and trying to remember why they mattered to him. The film is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s if only to have this director’s beloved alt-rock from the period on the soundtrack: Cocteau Twins, New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure. It’s a great mix tape, but it can’t take him home again.
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