Elizabeth Wood’s ‘White Girl’ Is a Film In Which Whiteness Is Anything But Neutral

"It should not be easy and rewarding to discuss the privilege I've experienced in my life. It's fucked up and it's gross, and in the film it's fucked up and it's gross, and that's why I wanted to make a film about it."

Bold movies beget sometimes obnoxiously bold responses; it would be hard to write a tepid review of Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl, which itself refuses to glance at any walk of life that isn’t twitchingly coked out or floppily coming down. As such, reactions from its screening at Sundance ran the gamut from disturbed yet impressed to, as one particularly taken aback Variety critic put it (and as others have also noted), fearing the film would “clog the world with unneeded negativity,” asking, “are we any wiser for having vicariously survived such depravity?” That particular review had only backhanded praise for star Morgan Saylor (Homeland’s Dana Brody), noting “her fearless attitude toward degrading herself onscreen.”

[Note: this piece contains some spoilers.]

White Girl, written and directed by Wood, is about a bleached blonde Midwest transplant named Leah, played by Saylor, who’s going in to her second year in college and has just moved to the Ridgewood, Queens. It’s NYC, so this also means she’s also inevitably being exploited at her internship, where her boss knows that bartering blow for a blow job is a safe bet. When she and her friend, Katie — another alabaster white girl played by 22-year-old performance artist India Menuez — first settle in their Ridgewood apartment, it’s summer break, and they pretty immediately want to score some “drugs.”

Luckily, they’ve noticed a group of Puerto Rican boys who hang out idly on a corner, and assume they’re drug dealers. One of them in particular — the one Leah will end up in a relationship with, named Blue (musician Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) — gives her shit about her assumption, but also ultimately gives her drugs. During Leah and Blue’s courtship, Katie is clearly made uncomfortable by the sudden presence of working class Puerto Rican drug dealers in her home — that is, until she also enters a relationship with one of them. Leah recommends they start dealing to her art media acquaintances/exploiters, which sparks a business boom — but very soon leads to Blue’s arrest. Leah begins frantically trying to sell all of his cocaine to get him a decent defense lawyer, and that is the film’s propelling plot.

Throughout its course, the film displays all the hedonistic indulgences parents (and apparently film critics) worry kids get up to. If you had to list the most common actions in the film, snorting and fucking wouldn’t be far from the top. But unless you’re desperately ignorant or desperately avoiding the contexts of said snorting and fucking, you’d see past all that pretty quickly to what this “Romeo and Juliet [story] on cocaine” — as director Elizabeth Wood describes it — is really getting at: confronting white audiences with a visceral display of the repercussions of ignorance about privilege.

Hopefully American theatergoers won’t be so shocked by an honest portrayal of collegiate female sexuality that they somehow miss that point. Deeply interlaced with expressions of power, sex in this film is just as much a storytelling mechanism as dialogue is, aiding a very confrontational story of race, class and gender.

I had a workshop leader try to talk me out of using the title White Girl — ‘You can never make a film with that name. It would be too inflammatory.'”

I sat down with Wood one-on-one following a screening and Q & A of her film; there, she said she “was disappointed the initial reactions to the film were about sex” when she brought her film to Sundance. “I was like, ‘Really?'” she told me. “You’re really scandalized about a blow job?” Even at the Q & A that Flavorwire attended, there was a focus on the film’s graphically sexualized portrait of a college student, to the extent that the questions waxed very uncomfortable. One attendee — a middle aged man, if I recall — in the audience asked of a scene which very clearly depicts a rape:

“It just seems that we’ve had this big discussion this past week with Nate Parker on the idea of rape and an unconscious woman. And in this movie, Leah puts herself into that position of definitely offering herself, doesn’t she?”

The cast, and director, all incredulous, began responding.

“She passes out,” said one cast member.

“Is it because she’s disgusted with herself —” continued the attendee, before being adamantly interrupted:

“[My character] get[s] her trashed,” said another cast member, who, for the purposes of not spoiling who does what awful thing to who in this film, I won’t divulge.

“Do you see that he’s really the one —?” the man persisted.

“It’s still mind-boggling to me that someone could at all say that someone invited rape. It’s 2016. There is no invite to rape… If a man gets his wallet stolen, does he think, ‘Should I not have gone out with my wallet, maybe then I wouldn’t have gotten my wallet stolen?'” said actor Marc pretty conclusively. The nature of this reaction shows that a young woman’s sexuality in cinema can still, to some, be so perplexing and such an affront that it takes on an entirely different meaning for them than what the film clearly emphasizes.

Wood, in part, uses this notion — of the cultural weight forced upon young female sexuality — to make her point. Sex gives Wood a medium with which to sculpt her portrait of the power structures of everyday American life.  “To me it was most important that the sex feel real — which I think can in turn be sexy and gross and weird and awkward,” the director told me. “And so I feel like there’s all those moments in the film, like, ‘is this sexy, it this gross, is this weird, is this awkward, am I really turned on?'”

She described how cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ camerawork was “intimate with actors, letting certain takes play out uncomfortably long,” where even on set everyone would start to feel uneasy. “If we’re starting to feel uncomfortable, it probably means something’s happening that’s going to translate well onscreen. I certainly didn’t try to make the sex scenes just seem sexy or beautiful — to me it’s more important that they just seem real and imperfect. It’s so disheartening to just watch perfect people in TV and movies all the time.”

In the above-mentioned rape scene, the film reaches the pinnacle (well, there actually two) of its indictment of our social food-chain: a girl, who’s discovered some of the unsavory aspects of how her sexuality as a white woman relates to power and her position within American society, is then rendered powerless by a white man’s sexuality.

The film’s concerns are really all there in its title. While most of the American film industry tends to see whiteness as neutral, such is not at all the case in this film — it’s one of the few films I can think of that’s about whiteness and knows it. (Girls, for example, ended up becoming the poster child of a show about white girls — and often brilliantly satirized its world of privilege — but was criticized because its universal title actually applied to a very specific demographic that often treats itself otherwise.) “White girl” also happens to be slang for cocaine — but like the cocaine in the movie, this double entendre is there as more of a vehicle to the blatant social imbalances the film mines, putting a declarative stamp (though one some people may choose to interpret differently) on the way the film is perceived as both a dissection of white privilege and male dominance.

The title came about one night while Wood was writing, listening to the Cam’Ron song, “White Girls,” which is also actually in the movie. “The song came on, and I was like, ‘Yuup.’ I think, without really knowing what the film is, some random internet people find the title provocative — they think it’s somehow an unknowing title, or that we’re not aware of the implications. Which is okay,” she clarified. “I came to White Girl fairly early on. I had a workshop leader try to talk me out of using that title — ‘You can never make a film with that name. It would be too inflammatory.'”

An earlier draft of the film was actually first, simply, called Ridgewood, after the Bushwick-bordering neighborhood in Queens where it takes place. Ridgewood could have been a similarly weighted title, but only to New Yorkers, in that the name, like that of its more famous neighbor, now connotes of the wave of gentrification caused by New York’s ruthless real estate market that jumps onto the places where students and artists are moving (because they’ve made everything else unaffordable), deems them “hot,” and catalyzes the uprooting of working class communities of color. (“In a nod to Ridgewood’s burgeoning trendiness, some are even calling it ‘Quooklyn,’” the New York Times wrote in 2014, in one of their obnoxious real estate trend pieces.)

Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com
Elizabeth Wood; image credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

Despite Katie’s initial suspicion of the boys — and in contrast to standard skewed American racist logic — Wood said, “To me the danger didn’t come from the boys in the neighborhood so much as the white girl who moved in.” And, in fact, the film is based on Wood’s own experience moving to Ridgewood 15 years ago, though she has emphasized this isn’t autobiography; the romance that’s central to the film (and the systemic and intersectional hardships beleaguering that romance) are actually based on something her former roommate experienced. Wood said she ultimately went to film school with the “sole idea” that she wanted to learn how to render that experience onscreen.

“When I was having this experience that the film is inspired by, I knew that I wanted it to be my first film. But I knew that I did not quite yet understand. So I did take the time; I’m glad I waited. Each season I waited, it became a bigger project, more serious,” she said, explaining that the wait was actually prolonged by yet another year after she unexpectedly became pregnant and had a child with her husband/collaborator Gabriel Nussbaum, who produced the film. She thought of the project as entirely DIY — shooting it herself, editing it herself, doing it all on no budget — ut ended up bringing on Nerve cinematographer Michael Simmonds and Love Is Strange/Elvis & Nixon editor Michael Taylor, as well as a cast with such known TV actors as Saylor and Chris Noth, who plays the lawyer working on Blue’s case.

If you continue to analyze the film through an intersectional lens, you see how much its narrative is determined by notions of power structures, so much so that this strength almost even becomes its weakness: it comes close to treating its characters as archetypes within a social hierarchy. I can’t think of a single character who varies from the roles these notions dictate: the men of color lack the social mobility of white men and are only given augmented visibility by the police intent on incarcerating them, the white girls are privileged and unfettered from any notion of responsibility, and the biggest oppressor to them is white men. But if some of the larger, legitimately upsetting plot points can also register as too predictable, its still saying something potent that the entrenched nature of social injustice might make for narrative predictability.

Indeed, if White Girl may sound like a think-piece about a film rather than a film, the actual, sensorily immersive experience Wood has created resists such criticism. The film’s stunning quiet moments, its cultural specificity, its subtle gestures, the interplay of characters physically in wild but un-traumatic moments counterbalance a more traumatic plot that only occasionally seems too driven by theoretical lines. At the Q & A, I asked the cast and Wood how they addressed the social questions of the film in rehearsal, and how that was balanced by an attempt to create full characters.

“I feel like we started on that bigger, meta version,” Wood said. She had a personal essay she’d written that she gave them — “about [her] own experience” and why she “wanted to make this, and about the characters.”

“I really began talking about the themes and the world we wanted to inhabit together,” she continued. “And as we got closer to showtime, it became more and more specific to your character, and not thinking about the bigger picture and what your effect is on others — just who you are, moment to moment.”

“Why would that still be so enticing, knowing that these are the white people moving into the neighborhood and changing things? Why would it be enticing when everyone else sees it as a threat?” said Marc, who’d explained earlier in the Q & A that he grew up in Sheepshead Bay, that “a lot of the things depicted in the movie” are things he’s “very familiar with and waited 18 years to get away from,” and that he moved to a California and built a music career and new life. “And [Elizabeth] said, ‘growing up in Brooklyn, why did you want to leave?’ What did you think was on the other side of that fence?”

Right now, white people need to discuss and figure shit out when doors are closed — it’s not just saying you care when you have a black friend in the room. [It’s about] having actual conversations about what we can do to help end hundreds of years of oppression.”

Though the film is so interested in an intersectional dissection, it still centers a white characters’ experiences, thereby making a film whose appeal itself might skew more white. I asked Wood about the film Nasty Baby , Sebastien Silva’s highly underrated, similarly potent and relatively frightening take on class, race, gender and sexual collisions in NY’s gentrifying outer boroughs (which”rocked her world”). Though that other film depicts a multiracial and diversely sexually oriented bourgeois-bohemian class colliding with an older working class, it’s also another film told from the perspective of the gentrifiers, and also clearly marketed towards an artistic-minded, middle class audience. Why had Wood chosen to write her film so clearly from this perspective?

“For anyone of color, hearing about white privilege is nothing new; like ‘Gimme a fucking break. Are you kidding me? I grew up hearing about this everyday,'” she told me. “But as white Americans we didn’t grow up hearing about this everyday, and that is how the system continues oppressing and preventing people from fixing shit — we didn’t grow up with the vocabulary or talking points. Right now, white people need to discuss and figure shit out when doors are closed — it’s not just saying you care when you have a black friend in the room. [It’s about] having actual conversations about what we can do to help end hundreds of years of oppression.”

I asked if she worried that, given pop cultural media’s current relationship to gender and race, she’d eventually misspeak or sound ignorant about such hot-button issues — where sounding ignorant can be career-damaging. “It’s in many ways still uncomfortable for me, as it should be,” she said. “You never want to say or do the wrong thing, but you have to let go of that. It should not be easy and rewarding to discuss the privilege I’ve experienced in my life. It’s fucked up and it’s gross, and in the film it’s fucked up and it’s gross, and that’s why I wanted to make a film about it.”