There’s almost too much sex and drugs in White Girl, a character study that’s hit or miss the whole way through. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue at all with this content, but it’s simply presented in a lackluster way. Quantity trumps quality here. The film wants to be a modern day Kids, but comes up short. There’s an attempt at a vivid sense of Brooklyn as a distinctive borough, but that’s not enough. Filmmaker Elizabeth Wood revels in drug use and casual sex, that’s for certain. However, Wood never gives us a true point to all the cocaine, pot smoke, and copious coupling. Caught somewhere between a cautionary tale and a true character study, it’s an ultimately frustrating experience. Wood wants to depict a segment of New York City’s youth, but she just comes up short.
White Girl is at times compelling, partly due to lead actress Morgan Saylor, as well as the energy Wood brings. Again though, it’s just not enough. This movie aches to be the new Kids or Thirteen in the worst way, but the goods aren’t there. If I’m being a bit harsh, it’s only because there are strong moments here that suggest a really good film. At other times though, it’s just plain ridiculous. In the confined space of the Sundance Film Festival, I see why it worked. Now in actual release, it winds up a somewhat lacking experience. White Girl isn’t a bad movie, but it should be a better one.
The narrative through line for the film is wobbly, but starts off with promise. Seemingly within moments of Leah (Saylor) and her roommate moving to Brooklyn, they encounter drug dealer Blue (Brian Marc) on their block. Leah is a party girl, doing cocaine with her boss Kelly (Justin Bartha) on day one of work, so it doesn’t take long for her and Blue to cross paths again. She wants to buy, but they also begin hooking up, which in turn leads him/his crew to start selling to the crowd Leah’s boss runs with. It’s a perfect summer before college for Leah, but then Blue is arrested, leaving her with a ton of cocaine. Does she sell it to help his legal defense or pay off the dangerous Lloyd (Adrian Martinez)? The choices she makes will potentially shock you, but sadly, the movie winds up low on surprises in the end.
Morgan Saylor undeniably sinks into this role. She’s one of the few believable characters here, as almost everyone else is some extreme version of an already cliched role. Saylor is committed, really going down the proverbial rabbit hole. She’s often high in one form or another, with her depiction of drug use being fairly harrowing. The script shortchanges her a bit at the end, but it’s not the fault of the actress. Brian Marc is fairly mediocre here, though to some degree that’s the fault of the screenplay. Most of the supporting players overact, though Justin Bartha and Adrian Martinez at least seem to having fun. Others, like Chris Noth, barely seem to be awake. The cast also includes Annabelle Dexter-Jones, India Menuez, Anthony Ramos, Ralph Rodriguez, and more. If there’s a highlight, it’s Saylor.
If there’s one thing writer/director Wood really focuses in on, it’s the presentation of Brooklyn as its own character. That’s more successful than the copious drug use depicted, as well as a multitude of sex scenes. Her writing just never goes beyond the surface level. While I don’t think she’s endorsing the behavior, it’s very late in the game before she really doubles down on any consequences. Her direction is more promising though, with admirable energy, and White Girl does function as a calling card for her going forward. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds gives the film a you are there approach, be it during a sex scene or on a pulsing club’s dance floor. Credit to Simmonds and Wood for not censoring anything, but I wish there was just more to care about here.
Basically, White Girl is a mild disappointment with periodic flashes of a bold new filmmaker in Wood. Her commitment to dark material is admirable, but she seems to not be able to see the forrest for the trees. I’m curious to see another film of hers, as well as more work from Saylor, but this is an overall forgettable movie. The influences it wears on its sleeve are far superior, so you’d be better served just revisiting one of those. When push comes to shove, this isn’t anything to avoid, but it’s nothing to seek out either. White Girl is a mixed bag that never quite is able to justify its own existence.