There is no such thing as objective filmmaking. There are good guys and bad guys and what’s on the screen or what’s in the script always provides a moral backbone to the story. In difficult movies about difficult subjects, sometimes it’s impossible to know until the last shot. And make no mistake, “White Girl” is difficult like no movie I’ve seen in a long while.
The story follows college student Leah (played by Homeland’s Morgan Saylor), a recent transplant to Ridgewood who, like so many others before her, moves to a cheaper far-flung neighborhood where all she sees is the drug dealer on the corner. Foreshadowing abounds in the first act. Blue, love interest and small time drug dealer (played by Brian Marc), says he doesn’t bother with girls like Leah (coke addicts). Strangers graze her thighs when she’s not looking. Bosses take advantage of her after offering drugs.
We know before we really know how this episode will end.
Elizabeth Wood, writer and director, has admitted in interviews that the main character is based loosely on her own life and told Vogue that she is “quite critical of this character [Leah], while also empathizing and having a lot of love for her. She’s not making wise decisions. I think most viewers should be able to tell that.”
While most viewers will be able to tell that Leah is both predator and victim on account of her skin color and gender, respectively, they might not have such an easy time focusing their blame on anyone but Leah.
The bottom line is that the people who know the system is messed up exploit it the most. When Leah messes up–and she messes up bad–there is no salvation for the person she ends up hurting most. In the last shot of the film, the viewer is left with her guilty face and not the face of her exploitative boss who tells her it’s just money or the face of his employee who asks, “Where the f*ck is Ridgewood?” or the face of the lawyer who rapes her as payment for an unpaid balance.
It’s tightly-plotted, visceral, and nearly too-real, but it puts the blame somewhere where maybe it doesn’t fully belong.
Is a screwed up criminal justice system the bad guy? Yes. Is gentrification, writ large, the bad guy? Undoubtedly. Is Leah the bad guy? Not really. She has fallen victim to drug addiction and tries to solve a problem by throwing drug money at it. That has never worked in the movies, and presumably it doesn’t work in real life.
Viewers looking for a nuanced portrayal of a neighborhood as diverse and teeming with life as Ridgewood will be disappointed. It’s used as nothing but a convenient metaphor for a wild place, rapidly gentrified and corrupted by those who can’t tell the difference between their lived experiences and those of the people around them.
You can catch it at Nitehawk starting tomorrow, September 2.
Featured image: Leah riding what is presumably the M train.