“I always figure it out.” Could any other five-word phrase better express the brash, privileged spirit of Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl”? The speaker is Leah (Morgan Saylor), a Midwestern transplant attending college in New York City; her audience is Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), her low level drug dealer boyfriend. Their conversation takes place in jail after Blue gets busted by an undercover cop. Leah, headstrong, gushing with confidence and naiveté, is determined to free Blue. But she doesn’t know how she’s going to do it, only that she’s going to do it, planning be damned. In another version of this film — a sugary, syrupy, studio-spawned version — Leah would succeed, Blue would walk, everything would be hunky dory, and U2 would write the soundtrack.
“White Girl” isn’t that movie. It’s Wood’s movie, in the sense that she’s both the author and the basis for its narrative. How closely “White Girl” resembles Wood’s life experiences is a question she’s answered only in short. Read any interview with her and you’ll get the same idea from each, that the film’s vaguest outline matches up with her reality; the details, we may surmise, vary between truth and fiction, though if you spend too much time wondering exactly where the former diverges from the latter then the evocative power of “White Girl” will be wasted on you. The movie isn’t exciting as a biography or as restitution. It’s exciting as a raw, provocative, and vividly realized cinema of sensation. Wood doesn’t invite us to observe “White Girl” so much as she invites us to involve ourselves in its drama.
The film pivots on Leah’s introduction to Blue, made in another brash, ill-advised attempt to score weed from him. They turn from hostile to hooking up within the span of ten minutes, tumbling head over heels following a single encounter on her building’s rooftop. Soon after, Leah gets the idea to acquaint Blue with her social circle, setting him up with young, hip, recklessly stupid white kids willing to pay a premium for cocaine, including her creepazoid boss, Kelly (Justin Bartha). Later, Blue is locked up and Leah scrambles desperately to drum up the cash to pay for a slick lawyer (Chris Noth) to get him off the hook. Meanwhile, Leah has to figure out what to do with the pile of coke Blue is supposed to sell for his distributor, Lloyd (Adrian Martinez), the straight-up terrifying foil to Blue’s cool temperament.
“White Girl” feels like a consumer’s guide to the ins and outs of white privilege. The effect is to raise our hackles. In point of fact, if the film wasn’t so damn infuriating, it’d be hysterical by virtue of Leah’s supreme lack of guile. She’s full of false, perhaps unearned poise, the kind of unknowing, smug self-certainty inherited through years of widening social divisions and enforced by a cultural legacy that gives the benefit of the doubt to people sporting fairer skin. When the police swoop in on Blue, Leah stands agape at the scene, staring at Blue as his face is pressed against the plate glass of a restaurant window. She’s the one holding, but the law overlooks her, never mind that the arresting officer talked with Leah moments before while she chilled out on the stoop outside Lloyd’s place.
“What are you doing here?” the officer asks her with a lupine grin. “What are you doing here?” she counters, smirking and superior. If only she knew who she was snarking at. “White Girl” treats Leah’s privilege as her strength and also her weakness, a blinder that lets her see only as far as what’s in front of her and nothing else. When the fraught verities of Blue’s existence make their presence felt, “White Girl” lets us see Leah stunned, but only temporarily: She has a bag of coke and a bottomless reserve of spunk to keep her going, partying long into the night, blissfully out of touch with the enormity of Blue’s circumstances, which in theory happen to be her own. In practice, it’s all on Blue, and Leah is his unequipped white savior, too naive and too enamored of NYC’s unending A.M. bacchanalias to offer meaningful assistance.
You’ll want to hate Leah. You will hate Leah. Yet “White Girl” boasts scummier human beings than her by far: Noth invests his attorney with a surplus of amoral sleaze, Bartha has a ball flaunting Kelly’s douchey, perverted qualities, and Martinez plays Lloyd as a vicious pot of psycho that’s close to boiling over. But Leah’s a bull in a china shop, ambivalent to the damage that she causes just by being there. Blue’s friend, Kilo (Anthony Ramos), takes a punch to the jaw when a sale goes cockeyed, and while Kilo bleeds, Leah can only laugh. She’s a tourist. To her, coke peddling is a charming and fun thing to do when visiting the hood. To Kilo, and most of all to Blue, it’s a survival technique.
Wood shoots “White Girl” with the utmost intimacy, and washes its moments of revelry with gaudy, electric color schemes, a sharp contrast to the grounded tones that characterize the rest of her aesthetic. Every club and every bar is tinted in neon or painted with lurid palettes, lending each debauched parade a vibrancy to bely their abandon. Graphic sex dominates the film’s frames. You know Wood isn’t messing around when she shoots Saylor simulating oral on Bartha seconds after he first appears in the film. (Speaking of Bartha’s junk: If you ever wanted to see someone snort blow off his manhood, this movie is for you.) That’s the bare minimum of how far “White Girl” goes in the “erotic” department. As the film progresses, you might come to believe you’ve been tricked into watching softcore porn.
But neither Wood, nor “White Girl,” is interested in cheap titillation. The film, and its director, shock us with purpose. Like “Spring Breakers,” or “Kids,” “White Girl” speaks to youth in tailspin using its own prickly, audacious language, and in doing so announces Wood as one of 2016’s most vital new voices in filmmaking. [A-]