Seventeen is a sentence that most prisons couldn't beat in a Pepsi challenge. Hostility bubbles just under the surface with every interaction with parents. Relationships are developed on the fly with an acute awareness of the limited shelf-life. Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is similarly killing time until she graduates and can leave her home life behind.
Previously considered chubby by her mother, Eve (Eva Green), Kat has grown into a beautiful young woman on the cusp of age eighteen. Her burgeoning sexuality does not go unnoticed by her mother, frustrated by her own urges in an emotionally repressed household. Kat and Eve were close once, but as Kat aged out of childhood and into a teenager, Eve grew resentful. Here laid before her was all of the opportunities that passed her by after marrying Brock (Christopher Meloni). Eve acts increasingly bizarre dressing considerably less than her age and parading around drunk in front of Kat's boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez). Then one day she simply disappears. Leaving no note or trace of her exit behind.
The absence of her mother should bother Kat, yet it doesn't. It comes mostly as a relief. Eve was only ever a pain, constantly lashing out at her husband and daughter for condemning her to this lifetime of making dinners and scrubbing windows. Her father wanders around lost in this haze, but Kat acts as if nothing has changed. If anything Eve's spontaneous abandonment just drives Kat to establish her sexual identity. Taking comfort in the arms of an older, more confident man (Thomas Jane). Rumors swirl around town and among Kat's closest friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Mark Indelicato), but Kat still shrugs her mother's absence off as whimsy.
Time passes and Kat begins her college career, though on an extended break at home she finds herself ready to confront the truth of what has happened. Araki plays hard and fast with the timeline switching from flashback to present day in exploring just how broken Kat's home was. Prompted by her psychiatrist (Angela Bassett), Kat faces hard questions about the past, rethinking her adolescence with new information at her disposal.
White Bird in a Blizzard sacrifices some depth in its character study of Kat in trying to preserve the mystery of what happened to her mother. Whether blocked by adolescent angst, or disillusion, Kat just isn't interested in finding out much about her mother's disappearance and it shows in the first two acts. Araki chooses to emphasize Woodley's performance as a teen dealing with a lot of complex issues. Kat's mother's disappearance affects her much more than she lets on and Woodley carefully underplays these moments, avoiding the me-first scene stealing that younger actors lean toward.
Woodley has evolved into quite the actor in her brief time in Hollywood. Kat is very different from the down-to-Earth characters from The Fault in Our Stairs and The Spectacular Now, more than willing to make all of those dumb mistake of those teenage years that aren't depicted in YA novels. Joining Woodley is a game veteran cast including Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Angela Bassett and Thomas Jane. With the exception of Green, a majority of the background players are underdeveloped, depending on the gravitas the recognizable character actors bring with them.
Eva Green had her own Hollywood cottage industry briefly in 2014, saving terrible films from themselves (300: Rise of an Empire, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For). The part of Eve lends itself to more scenery chewing, yet Green gets away with it. She carries a forced smile so long that when the genuine article appears it is almost disturbing to see. Araki also takes advantage of the multi-faceted Christopher Meloni, who too often is only allowed to play the stern authority figure.
White Bird in a Blizzard fights itself during its running time deciding whether it wants to be a portrait of a grieving teen or a murder mystery and the conflict occasionally leads to some lagging scenes. Fortunately, Woodley manages to pull it all off showcasing her arrival in the group of young actresses ready to make that next leap. Check out her next project, whatever it is, she's earned it.