Vincent Grenier, Armoire, 2007–11, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.

INITIALLY DRAWN TO PAINTING AND SCULPTURE, Quebec-born Vincent Grenier began making films in 1970 and has taught at Binghamton University since 1999. He has more than fifty films and digital works to his credit, many of which screened over the years in the Avant-Garde programs of the New York Film Festival. Watching and rewatching two dozen of them in a short span of time, I was struck by their modesty and simplicity, virtues that make it easy to overlook their concomitant beauty and observational acuity.

Many of Grenier’s titles describe quite literally the subjects and imagery of the works. In Travelogue (2010), we sit in the cab of a truck or a van as it moves along Route 79 in upstate New York—the filmmaker’s territory. De-Icing (2014) records the titular treatment airplanes often undergo before they are readied for takeoff. Because Grenier is as committed to the material reality of things as he is to the medium’s ability to transform them into estranging phenomena, titles may also be metaphorical. Burning Bush (2010) focuses on an actual bush, but by closing in on its vivid red leaves, shaking images to a blurry wash, fluctuating the camera’s distance and speed, filtering, and adding a crackling sound track—as if something offscreen were, in fact, burning—he creates a filmic reality as palpable as the one documented. On the other hand, in Mend (1979), we watch a tree and a snowfall through a window as a dark, indistinguishable shape in the foreground makes fleeting, indiscernible movements, only to learn at the last moment that they are the gestures of a woman sewing in the penumbral space around her.

In Straight Lines (2009) we gaze at grayish, gently rippling horizontal lines—anything but straight—that seem to belong to a fabric of some kind, as a large vague shadow moves above them. The shifting contours, stirred perhaps by a slight breeze, suggest the gentle strumming of a musical instrument. Then, slowly, into focus comes a view of what could be part of a bed, dressed with a bright white coverlet or sheets.

It’s clear that Grenier is as interested in what is unseen or barely seen as he is about what is directly before us. But this play with presence and absence, or virtual presence and absence, seems less about the importance of offscreen space than it is about enlisting the viewer’s tendency to “complete” the picture that the film offers only obliquely. In White Revolved (1976), we follow a revolving white object without a clear sense of what it is or in which direction it turns. At first glance, it could be anything from a swinging light fixture to an undulating area of flesh.

This fondness for initially withholding the identity of the object of the camera’s gaze and soliciting the viewer’s imaginative play is critical to Grenier’s aesthetic. By filming up close, or through some mediating element, via obscuring shadows or insufficient light, he enforces the viewer’s active engagement, creating a need to puzzle out what he or she sees rather than passively soak it up. The everyday world is thus invested with surprise and suspense as we perceive that ordinary phenomena—objects, spaces, animals, nature, people—carry within them unplumbed mysteries equally inherent to their existence.

Vincent Grenier, Burning Bush, 2010, digital video, color, sound, 9 minutes.

Grenier’s frequent tendency to frame ambiguously, or deflect the material basis or the genesis of a work, is not just an optical game he plays with the viewer—although, surely, he must draw great pleasure from this prospect. The strategy to incite discovery seems ingrained in his character, a natural proclivity to reproduce or literally reenact his way of looking at the world—as if to entice its response. Consider the phrase heard from offscreen in his film Tabula Rasa (1992–2004): As the camera pans over a pale, ghostlike space, a voice exclaims, “Watch this wall respond to me.”

Less cryptic are the transformations in Back View (2011). Shooting from a high angle, the camera is so fixed on the courtyards below between two apartment buildings that one might recall Hitchcock’s Rear Window. While no characters are in sight, a multiethnic, urban sound track colorfully reflects the buildings’ occupants, as the sun, shadows, and rain make their way across the spaces in the course of a day.

Nature studies like Tableaux Vivants (2011) and Watercolor (2013) testify to the meticulous sensitivity of Grenier’s painterly eye. The former is a long take of a deserted forest, its trees faintly fluttering in the breeze, followed by closer views of ferns and other greenery. The aptly titled Watercolor, one of the most stunning examples of digital cinematography I’ve seen, begins with a sustained shot of a body of water (it was filmed at Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca, New York) that fills the frame, as people and objects beyond its upper border cast reflections in the water. Through Grenier’s mastery, standard effects like dissolves, superimpositions, and color control conjure a series of moving watercolors, their brilliantly varied palettes shifting, dissipating, and fusing moment by moment, each rich hue tempered by the play of light and rippling of the water before dissolving into the next.

It may seem that Grenier’s work privileges the world around people rather than people themselves, but there are exceptions. YOU (1990) is a charming and hilarious piece in which a young woman (Lisa Black), posed in a series of unusual settings, addresses someone offscreen (hence the “you”)—the filmmaker? an imaginary person?—recalling his fury over people talking in a movie theater and other behavioral tics with which she’s had to cope. Though pitched as autobiographical, the woman, in fact, is not a former girlfriend of Grenier. Brendan’s Cracker (1999) juxtaposes, ever so gently, the antics of a young boy glaring into the camera’s lens while carrying a tiny cheese cracker, with a loving exchange between an old woman in a wheelchair, unable to speak, and a younger woman who may or may not be related. As the title of Grenier’s This, and This (2006)—a lyrical study of boys by a river—declares, he is not one to unduly press contrasting themes or moods, allowing them to coexist with equal weight, as they do in life.

One of my favorite moments in Grenier’s work occurs in the four-part Armoire (2007–11). A robin flits about a garden, flies up to a fence, then down to the grass—its moves oddly skittish, as if confused by the terrain. A slight pullback of the camera reveals why: What we took for the garden itself was, in fact, its reflection in a mirror. Our initial puzzlement, echoed by the bird’s, is wonderfully captured by the final shot, as the robin, poised by the mirror’s edge, looks up at the glass, then tilts its head at such a perfectly quizzical angle that it seems rehearsed. What better expression of the wonderment with which the filmmaker faces the world and the whimsical but subtle artistry of his celebrations of it.

Tony Pipolo

“Cinemas as Found Object: Films and Videos by Vincent Grenier” runs Sunday, November 9 and Monday, November 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, 2014, color, sound, 181 minutes.

ON THE SURFACE, North American master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour film National Gallery is a conservative observation of a conservative institution, the National Gallery in Britain. But as anyone involved in the conservation of artworks from the epochs of empires will inform you, all meaning is simultaneously obscured and revealed on the surface. Wiseman’s film subtly traces his invisible presence within the National Gallery, sometimes floating like an unseen voyeur, other times pausing like a mute docent. The resulting audiovisual palimpsests form the film’s calming yet intriguing investigation of the museum’s public and private machinations across three months in 2012.

For a conservative art-literate audience, the film will excite with behind-the-scenes protocols, from costing to selecting to crating to hanging to lighting to marketing to educating. It also reassures that the conservative scaffolding that modernism fiercely sought to wrench asunder remains as firmly intact as the faux-Greco architecture that encircles Trafalgar Square in London, where the National Gallery resides. By chance, the film covers the period of two blockbusters by Leonardo and Titian, and a retrospective of J. M. W. Turner. An Anglophilic perspective on European Art frames all discourse: The Renaissance predictably is posed as a sublime nexus of religious dogma and social consciousness, and successive premodern phases assume dependency on spirituality as a divining rod for artistic expression.

In a sense, Wiseman’s approach to long-haul production and long-form analysis is a precursor to Big Data in the current cloud-tabulating environment. National Gallery is literally a view of “walls with ears,” granting us privy to all manner of discussion within its corridors, porticos, boardrooms, and wings. Like Big Data, this information is coldly assembled and forwarded.

This allows one to sift through the film’s Big Data and make connections to something hardly noted across its three hours: contemporary art. Might National Gallery not be an exemplar of everything contemporary art has flirted with over the past quarter-century? The film can be viewed as a soft yet incisive inventory aligned with seminal institutional critique, from the social analyses of John Berger and Victor Burgin to the museographic interventions of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher. Viewed accordingly, National Gallery is a sharp consideration of how to navigate the problems of institutional critique by judiciously parsing significance to the multitude of voices heard within the National Gallery’s confines.

Notably, National Gallery is never condescending toward those people and apparatuses concerned with furnishing art’s discourse: docents, volunteers, didactic panels, or audio guides. If there is a problem with the film, it is one often shared by curators, critics, and artists alike: the impulse to signify narration and solicit imagination. These banal modes of participatory reading are voiced time and again, as docents and curators urge us to imagine we’re back at the flickering light of Plato’s cave, to consider the gallery’s collection as precursors to today’s cinema and its prescribed social relevance. It’s a clichéd ploy, regardless of political leanings, to reduce the act of looking to a mode of reading. Wiseman’s film itself sometimes takes this recourse in its edited sequencing of cropped details of paintings (particularly showing faces in the act of looking).

But elsewhere, phantom ties to contemporary art are notable. One perversely enjoyable moment occurs when an installation crew rips up the walls and floors. Amid the noise one could hear the jackhammers from Hans Haacke’s Germania, from the 1993 Venice Biennale. The irony is that all institutions accommodate temporary site-specific intervention. A quarter of the film is devoted to such logistics of installation and maintenance. It even opens with a solitary man gliding across an empty gallery buffing its wooden floor. Its audiovisual contradistinction—droning industrial noise engulfing the silent beauty of invaluable works of art—evokes an effectively modern artistry. Opposite, when Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner atop the museum’s portico facade to protest oil drilling in the Arctic, the few late-night passersby seem bemused and nonplussed by the macho heroics.

The film closes with a short ballet choreographed to a grave quasi-liturgical string quartet. One is reminded of the sardonic anti-intellectualism of “dancing to architecture,” but this finale to National Gallery does suggest that the best way to discuss imagemaking is to transubstantiate it in another medium. It’s as good an argument as any: It keeps the conversation going, and that might be Wiseman’s core assessment of the museum’s purpose.

Philip Brophy

Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery premieres Wednesday, November 5–Tuesday, November 18 at Film Forum in New York.

Phil Collins, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes.

LURKING IN THE SHADOW of the Frieze Art Fair and relegated to the very back pages of the print catalogue of the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival was Experimenta, an assembly of nineteen programs devoted to experimental cinema and artists’ film and video. Curated for the second year running by LUX’s Benjamin Cook and the BFI’s Helen de Witt and William Fowler, the sidebar showcased some sixty-two works varying in length, ranging from productions with crews the size of a Sundance darling to films made by a single individual in the artisanal mode long associated with avant-garde cinema.

Indeed, the breadth of the program captured the extent to which “artists’ moving image”—seemingly the preferred term in the contemporary UK context—today encompasses not only a plurality of formal and conceptual approaches, but also strikingly different financing structures and modes of production. In Britain this sector is witnessing a clear push toward bigger budgets and longer running times, coming as much from art-world interest as it does from the changed funding policies of an organization like FLAMIN (the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network), which now offers awards of between £20,000 and £50,000 ($32,000 and $80,000) to a handful of large-scale projects rather than disbursing a greater number of more modest grants.

One outcome of this is the “artists’ feature film,” an entity that must be distinguished from the established tradition of long-form experimental filmmaking not only due to its mode of production but also its crossover aspirations. Features like Emily Wardill’s When You Fall into a Trance (2014) and Phil Collins’s Tomorrow Is Always Too Long (2014) cultivated distinct alliances with conventional genre cinema: Wardill offered a family melodrama complete with a teenage suicide attempt, while Collins staged Glaswegian musical numbers not unlike those found in Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl (2014). If one had not known their makers to be fine artists, the presence of these films within the Experimenta strand would have been somewhat perplexing, particularly given that works far more challenging and daring—to name only two, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (2014)—were shown elsewhere in the festival. This is not to suggest that Diaz and Godard would have been better accommodated in Experimenta, but simply to point to how thoroughly the parameters of “artists’ moving image” have been transformed in recent years.

Despite this tendency, it was striking how many of the program’s most outstanding films revisited the history of a more artisanal way of working and testified to its ongoing viability. Robert Beavers’s Listening to the Space in My Room (2013) is an intimate account of self-transformation that retains his mastery of craft while integrating a joy and tenderness not always present in his earlier films. Works by younger filmmakers such as Mary Helena Clark (The Dragon Is the Frame [2014]) and Sylvia Schedelbauer (Sea of Vapors [2014]) engage with established paradigms of experimental film—the diary film and the flicker film, respectively—without feeling slavishly bound to their iterations by preceding generations. Clark’s beautiful memorial to her friend, artist Mark Aguhar, wanders through the San Francisco area, past the locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), searching for answers but finding only reminders of loss. Schedelbauer, meanwhile, mesmerizes the viewer with pulsating confusions of scale that turn the human face into landscape and vice-versa. Margaret Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) is a cameraless 70-mm film made at FotoKem in Burbank, California, the only lab in the world that continues to process the format. By using color-timing tape to control the opening and closing of the red-green-blue valves, Honda immerses the viewer in a passage across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, producing a spectacular effect through simple means.

Emily Wardill, When You Fall into a Trance, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 72 minutes.

The clear highlight of the archival selections—and indeed, one of the highlights of the festival as a whole—was “Meditations from Our Lady of the Angels,” a program of eleven films from Los Angeles recently restored by Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. Toscano’s peerless selection included impeccable presentations of classics like Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) and Chick Strand’s Kristallnacht (1979), as well as world premieres of the Academy preservations of three very different but very accomplished films: Amy Halpern’s Invocation (1982), Pat O’Neill’s Coreopsis (1998), and Penelope Spheeris’s I Don’t Know (1970). When Toscano describes I Don’t Know as a “truly major work” in his program notes, he makes no overstatement. An almost unclassifiable documentary portrait of the relationship between the transgender Jimmie and Linda, who identifies as a lesbian, the film is a moving, playful, and lingering early work from a woman best known as the director of Wayne’s World (1992).

Spheeris’s unorthodox documentary resonates with a major strand of contemporary practice, one that received deservedly strong representation in Experimenta: the engagement with complex contaminations of reality and fiction. Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014) is a twenty-minute film shot on Malta that explores the enduring myth of the island utopia as imagined both by Plato and by a 1970s American television series. Judith Schalansky has written in her Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, “An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature.” Atlantis interrogates this space of fabulation without ever leaving the real island behind, finding itself caught between a portrait of place and the conjuring of a drowned paradise. Eric Baudelaire’s justly celebrated Letters to Max (2014) also confronts the tension between the real and the imagined, albeit in a very different register. Baudelaire addresses the problematic of the nation as imagined community through epistolary correspondence with Maxim Gvinjia, the former minister of foreign affairs of Abkhazia, a largely unrecognized state that seceded from Georgia in the 1992–93 civil war. The simplicity of Baudelaire’s letters belie his sophisticated knowledge of the region and deep engagement with questions of nationhood, facts that become evident through the film’s deft deployment of the relations among sound, image, and text. Some might see Letters to Max as fitting into the paradigm of the essay film, and in certain ways it does. But it departs from many of the conventions that have lately been deployed with such frequency, such that the mode has calcified into an all too recognizable genre. The essay is by definition something that challenges established categories and gambles on experimental forms; beyond all those who seek to ventriloquize Marker and Resnais, Letters to Max remains faithful to these aims and reveals the enormous potential that resides in doing so.

Joining Letters to Max in this desire to think within and beyond the essay film was Harun Farocki’s last completed work, Parallel I–IV (2012–14). This series continues the late filmmaker’s long-standing investigation into the rise of calculable, actionable images possessing a relationship to reality very different than that of the cinema before them. Tracing the evolution of video game graphics from the two-dimensional schematics of the early 1980s to the photorealistic environments of today, Farocki foregoes the obsession with novelty that too often characterizes discussions of so-called “new” media, instead situating games within a longer history of representation. The Parallel series is a major achievement that exemplifies a key attribute of a singular practice cut far too short: Farocki joins poetic speculation with analytical strength to call upon the viewer not simply to look and listen carefully, but also to think along with him. The closing title of Laure Prouvost’s How To Make Money Religiously (2014) offered excellent advice for Parallel I–IV and many other works of this year’s Experimenta: “MULTIPLE VIEWINGS ARE RECOMMENDED.”

Erika Balsom

“Experimenta” ran October 8–19 at the British Film Institute in London.

Gold Rushes


Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, 1913. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams.

“I THINK THEY DIDN’T release it because it wasn’t racist enough,” said Ron Magliozzi, associate curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, before a press preview of assembled footage of a movie shot in 1913 but ultimately abandoned—the earliest surviving feature-length production with a black cast. The stunning rushes for this work—a lively project devoid of many (though not all) bigoted grotesqueries—are being presented as part of MoMA’s twelfth annual film-preservation program “To Save and Project”; this particular rescue mission has an exceptionally long history. These seven reels were part of a trove of materials acquired by Iris Barry, MoMA’s founding film curator, from the Biograph Studio’s Bronx facilities shortly before their destruction in 1939.

Though never titled at the time, MoMA is calling the unfinished film Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, in reference to its lead, the Bahamian-born actor who was the best-known black entertainer of the era (and who appeared in only a few movies, making his central role here all the more remarkable). During the roughly one hour of unedited material (for which no inter-titles were found), Williams is established as a banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty (played by Odessa Warren Gray, once a prominent milliner, according to Magliozzi). The couple attends the annual picnic and ball sponsored by the titular fraternal organization for the town’s black residents; Williams and his date eat ice cream, share a lollipop on a carousel, and, later that night at the Lime Kiln Club, take part in a fancy-dress cakewalk. (Cultural critic Margo Jefferson, during a brief panel discussion before the screening, wittily compared this dance number to “a Don Cornelius Soul Train moment” and more broadly noted the scene’s “proud élan.”) As the suitor walks his lady home, the film concludes with the two of them kissing—a bit of romance between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case at the time, but as an honest expression of love. (The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black actors would rarely be permitted to display any affection on screen.)

Despite this and other singular traits of the film—notably the cast’s ease and camaraderie with the two white directors, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, and other white crew members, glimpsed during the rushes and in the production stills that line MoMA’s theater-lobby galleries—the project is not without egregious stereotypes. Williams performs in blackface; the sign for the book-lined room of the Lime Kiln Club announces it as “De Libray.” In the prescreening panel, Magliozzi—who, with another MoMA colleague, led the team that spent the past decade identifying as much as possible about the production—emphasized that he didn’t want to further exacerbate these painful incidents during the assembling of the footage: “We felt like we were trapping these performers in a minstrel narrative...Being white curators, we missed things.” (Keen to hear others’ observations, Magliozzi asked Jacqueline Stewart, a leading scholar of African American cinema, and social-practice artist Theaster Gates to also look at the footage.) Flickering on a screen a century-plus later, the actors are, at the very least, no longer confined to an even greater ignominy: being forgotten.

Melissa Anderson

The world-premiere presentation of the assembled rushes for Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day will take place on November 8 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the film-preservation festival “To Save and Project,” which runs through November 22. “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” is on view in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Lobby Galleries at MoMA through March 2015.

Indie Rocks


Albert Serra, Story of My Death, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes.

ALBERT SERRA’S STORY OF MY DEATH (2013) animates the past with glinting life. Serra, a thirty-nine-year-old Catalonian, focuses on a corpulent, decaying, half-mad Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) who spends his waning days in a Swiss castle admiring himself—and younger women. He leads a group of followers on a trip to a sunlit pastoral setting where no less forbidding a figure than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) awaits them. The group succumbs to vampirism within a film whose nighttime images often hover on the precipice of visibility. We witness the spectacle of an older world burning out like a candle on its way to being replaced by times that could prove even darker.

Story of My Death won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival and will begin its US theatrical premiere run November 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Story also recently headlined a Serra retrospective at the fourteenth edition of Brazil’s Indie Festival, an exciting program of contemporary film offered to audiences both in São Paulo and in Belo Horizonte. We observed the honing of Serra’s methods prior to Story, in works like Quixotic/Honor de Cavalleria (2006) and Birdsong (2008). Serra typically adapts canonical source material (Don Quixote, the Bible) into low-budget, largely improvised films with nonprofessional actors wandering across vivid landscapes, lost within a fragile present.

At first glance, Serra’s films seemed strikingly different from those of this year’s other Indie retrospective recipient, the sixty-seven-year-old, US-born and France-naturalized Eugène Green. While Serra transforms literary characters, Green depicts contemporary people seeking texts by which to live. In fiction films such as Le Pont des Arts (2004) and The Portuguese Nun (2009), the longtime writer and theater director presents ensembles of aspiring and established actors, artists, authors, and musicians who engage one another with the hopes of filling empty spiritual lives, and who choose to do so in the most controlled ways that they can. A typical Green scene alternates between two people, each in his or her own fixed frame, each formally and precisely reciting his or her thoughts to the other and to the film’s viewers.

Green’s latest, La Sapienza (2014)—which premiered at this year’s edition of Locarno and will be released in the US early next year—offers many such moments. The film’s four main characters form mirrored pairs, with two middle-aged, malaise-stricken French spouses seeing reflections of themselves in younger Italian counterparts they meet abroad. All four seek other people’s histories to stand in for their own. The two men together devote themselves to studying architecture, and the Frenchman (Fabrizio Rongione) turns his attention toward the work of Francesco Borromini, whose Baroque edifices express a designed perfection that he desires for his own inner life.

Green, like Serra, finds beauty in human mortality. Something similar could be said of two other filmmakers represented in the Indie program, both with works that function as moving, sensorial autobiography. The first is twenty-seven-year-old Argentine Eduardo “Teddy” Williams, a brilliant crafter of lively, semistaged short films in which young male friends joyfully explore towns and cities together. I Forgot! (2014) catches a bantering group of youth whose members race around Hanoi roads and streets that appear in fleeting, pleasurably unfamiliar ways, as though all the young men—including Williams—were savoring these grounds for the very first time.

Eighty-one-year-old New Yorker Ken Jacobs knows the Brooklyn Bridge well but finds new ways to render it in A Primer in Sky Socialism (2013), a silent 3-D revisitation of his earlier film The Sky Socialist (1964) that uses a succession of stills to render the bridge as he and his wife Flo see it on New Year’s Eve. For more than fifty years, Jacobs has sought new ways to depict human figures. Here, warm reds and greens surround streams of celebrants, who appear as happy blurs of light.

Aaron Cutler

The fourteenth Indie Festival ran September 3–10 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and September 17–October 1 in São Paulo.

Gregg Araki, White Bird in a Blizzard, 2014, color, sound, 91 minutes. Kat Connor, Beth, and Mickey (Shailene Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe, and Mark Indelicato).

GREGG ARAKI FOLLOWED his 1992 breakthrough, The Living End, one of the foundational titles of the New Queer Cinema, with what he called his “teenage apocalypse trilogy”: Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997). Yet in the seventeen years since the final entry of that triptych, Araki has rarely strayed from the theme of adolescents or young people confronting the end of the world. Sometimes the planet quite literally blows up, as in 2010’s Kaboom. In Araki’s latest, the uneven White Bird in a Blizzard—which he adapted from Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel of the same name—what shatters is the complacent facade of a San Bernardino, California, family, the shards collected and sifted through by the adolescent daughter of miserably married suburban parents.

“I was seventeen when my mother disappeared,” Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley) says in voice-over as the film opens in the fall/winter of 1988. Mom, named Eve and played by Eva Green, is seen in flashback and in Kat’s dream sequences, a shellacked, stay-at-home beauty slowly unraveling from the hate she feels toward her timid husband (Christopher Meloni) and from a life in which the only creative outlet is preparing crab thermidor. Araki does little to shape this mad housewife into more than a rough sketch of camp flourishes; Eve is made even more absurd by the wildly rampaging accent of the French-born, London-trained Green.

Grounding White Bird in a Blizzard and providing its warmth, however, is Woodley, who, earlier this year, starred in two high-profile adaptation of YA novels: the dystopic Divergent (depicting another kind of teen apocalypse) and the weepie The Fault in Our Stars. Born in 1991, Woodley has been acting since she was eight—the same age that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (born in 1980), the star of Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), was when he began his career. As Mysterious Skin did for Gordon-Levitt, White Bird marks a major transition for Woodley, calling on her to reveal a sexual confidence and hunger previously tamed or elided.

“Whatever—can we just stop talking and fuck?” Kat asks of her dim boyfriend, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). The teenager may follow through on the police department’s suggestion that she see a therapist (Angela Bassett, always a boon no matter how itty-bitty her part) after her mother vanishes, but Kat is not bereaved, unable, at first, to mourn for someone who had already seemed long gone. No grief dampens her concupiscence; she easily beds the taurine, middle-aged cop (Thomas Jane) assigned to her mother’s case. In that same bed three years later, when Kat is home on break from Berkeley, the detective will tell her what he really thinks happened to her mom—a revelation that may seem inevitable but that nonetheless causes the young protagonist to completely reassess her image of both her mother and herself. Araki’s ending to White Bird is a radical departure from that in the source novel (which I haven’t read), apparently, and will not surprise anyone who’s seen any of his films before. What is unexpected—and ultimately moving—is the director’s deep empathy for and curiosity about the impossibly fraught nature of relationships between mothers and daughters. He may bungle the topic often in White Bird, especially in Eve’s outlandish caricature, but the final minutes of the film disclose a profound filial reckoning.

Melissa Anderson

White Bird in a Blizzard opens in limited release on October 24.