by Veronica Stone
With its NSFW trailer making the rounds, White Girl director, Elizabeth Wood, is one of the most talked about rising filmmakers, ready to make her mark in Hollywood. At only 33 years old, White Girl is Wood’s first feature film, though she has previously worked on experimental shorts and documentaries. In between getting her BFA at the New School and her MFA at Columbia (where she graduated in 2013), Wood and her husband, fellow filmmaker Gabriel Nussbaum, went to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There, they offered their services as teachers at the James M. Singleton Charter Middle School, where they gave cameras to a group of eighth graders and encouraged them to record their experiences. Thus, came her first nonfiction feature Wade in the Water, Children, a documentary made out of over 300 hours of video that took nine months to shape into a cohesive story. The film, which premiered at the 2007 Hamptons International Film Festival, was critically successful, mostly due to its raw, intimate and uncensored style that focused on the children’s footage, as they recorded their lives and childhoods in New Orleans’ violent Central City neighborhoods, post-Katrina. Wood’s unconventional approach to filmmaking, as well as her attention to realism carried into her next project, White Girl, which she began writing when she applied to Columbia’s Screenwriting MFA program. As her feature debut, the film could be seen as more personal than her previous work.
Based on true events in Wood’s life and stories that she heard while living in New York as a New School undergrad, White Girl tells the story of incoming sophomore, Leah, who moves to Ridgewood, two weeks before the start of the semester. She quickly meets and falls for Blue, a small-time drug dealer from the neighborhood. And as soon as the two start a relationship (based mainly on drugs and sex), he gets arrested, leaving Leah with a big bag of cocaine, aka the White Girl from the film’s title. Desperate to get Blue out of jail, Leah goes to several extremes, from selling Blue’s drugs to hiring sleazy lawyers.
When it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, White Girl received mainly rave reviews, applauding it as an extreme coming of age story, similar to Larry Clark’s infamous Kids (1995). The film offers an unflinching look at everyday, contemporary New York from the eyes of young adults, as they deal with race, class, and the extremes that people will go to in the pursuit of pleasure. Leah and Blue are exposed to excessive drug use, institutional racism (Leah’s caucasian, Blue is Puerto Rican) and sexual violence, but the film makes sure to steer away from judgment, shame or pity for them; Wood is more interested in portraying how traumatic events, as well as privilege, shape our identity and youth.
With White Girl, Wood seems to enter the kind of cinema on which directors/social critics, such as Harmony Korine, Bret Easton Ellis, Larry Clark and Todd Solondz, have made their mark. The similar voyeuristic and graphic camera style captures violence, sex and drug use to the point of absurdity. It’s as if the director is challenging the audience to make a moral judgement on the protagonist’s irresponsibility and naïveté. The film is also completely self-aware, in the sense that its music video aesthetic of club scenes, loud music, and neon lights, is what Leah’s fantasy of New York appears to be. These images are then, abruptly juxtaposed with the realities she faces–violence and rape—due to her growing addiction. At the same time, she is also confronted with gentrification, racial profiling, power dynamics and our flawed justice system, set side by side with her inherent white privilege.
White Girl hits theaters on September 2nd in New York City. It will no doubt be a hot topic amongst college students who, similar to the film’s protagonist, have recently moved to Bushwick, Bed Stuy, and Crown Heights, raising awareness to the ever growing gentrification sweeping across New York City.
Wood’s next project, Spiritual Crisis, is also drawn from her own life. She’s described it as a lo-fi, sci-fi relationship, psychodrama about someone who takes ayahuasca and decides to change their life.
Wood’s storytelling abilities, both visually and narratively, have been recognized as truthful and promising. She’s clearly a young filmmaker who effortlessly understands youth culture and contemporary issues. We definitely need more of them to shine a reflective light in today’s troubled world.