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The title of Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl undoubtedly refers to the color of its antiheroine’s skin. But it’s also reflective of a naivete—here not quite the same as innocence—that’s still bubblewrapped by the young woman’s humble Oklahoma origins as well as her comfortable relationship with privilege when she moves to a dangerous part of Queens the summer before college.
Not long after Leah (Morgan Saylor, Being Charlie) and her roommate, Katie (India Menuez), pull up their moving van to their decrepit corner, Leah’s flirting with the boys from the block. The pair decompress after hauling their furniture up a walk-up with some bong hits and beer. And when they run out of weed, Leah runs out to the boys to try to score some more.
She’s turned down by Blue (Brian Marc), who tries to school the wide-eyed wild child that she can’t just approach strangers and ask for drugs. But at the same time they’re both turned on, and soon enough, Blue is in her apartment and his friends are climbing up her fire escape. Katie, who seems to have a modicum of sense, isn’t pleased, but hey, drugs are drugs.
Writer-director Wood’s first feature feels like a just-as-thorny cousin to last year’s searing James White. With nearly as much snorting as there is dialogue and the roommates’ penchant for clubs, the film is often engulfed in a pulsating haze at night that’s contrasted by the harshness of reality and daylight when the partying’s over. Leah interns at a magazine, her short skirts apparently signaling to her supervisor (Justin Bartha, cast against type but sufficiently skeezy) that she likes a good time. The same message is picked up by an attorney, George (Chris Noth), whom Leah cluelessly retains when Blue is arrested for a sale he didn’t quite make. His fees are a shock to her, and his own sense of entitlement when she can’t pay is revolting.
Yet Leah still spends those days before classes start drunk, stoned, and ever sniffing to keep going, never seeming to learn that she should keep her wits about her considering the situations in which she places herself. She goes to great lengths to rescue Blue, even though her attachment to him isn’t as strong as the love he professes for her. And why not: Anyone with any sense wouldn’t sacrifice her bank account to land a lawyer for someone she barely knows or try to sell a brick of his coke so he doesn’t get in more trouble with his dealer while locked up. But her appearance protects her again and again: Even George admits that cases like Blue’s are helped when they have witnesses “who look like you.”
Saylor is alternately stiff and extraordinary here, not so great at playing the sober innocent but an ace at the blurry motions of someone who’s extremely wasted. A disturbing fight in a club has Leah laughing: “That was crazy!” she howls after her posse is tossed back on the street. Yet, like many people her age, she thinks she’s smarter than she actually is: “I always figure it out,” Leah tells Blue during a visitation. And with George admitting that American justice is a “fucked-up system,” maybe she can, though to the detriment of her self-worth.
Wood caps all of Leah’s chaos with a brilliantly subtle final scene that contrasts the world she’s been occupying with the one more appropriately her speed—at least if she doesn’t want to end up in jail or worse. Like ice water to the face, this fresh reality sobers her up quick.
White Girl opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up and Angelika Film Center.