‘White Girl’ Evokes NYC Nostalgia While Tackling Privilege And Power Dynamics
White Girl, written and directed by Elizabeth Wood, is an epic portrayal of New York City’s hazy summer scene. The film follows Leah (Morgan Saylor), an over-the-top college freshman who moves to Brooklyn with her best friend. After eyes lock, a curious interest sparks between Leah and Puerto Rican dope purveyor Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), resulting in a tragic romance. After Blue gets caught up in the drug enterprise and thrown in jail, Leah goes to extreme ends to get him back. Starring Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos and Sex and the City’s Chris Noth, White Girl tackles white privilege and points at current racial politics.
Through 88 minutes of raunchy sex, various drugs and obscene profanity, you get a filthy feel of what the darker side of 5th Avenue looks like. One thing that immediately grabs your attention is the merger of Latino drug dealers and Anglo women new to Brooklyn. It’s a cross between what New York City was and its new gentrified identity that we’re seeing today. Whether the film is a real portrayal of New York City streets or an overly-dramatized one is up for debate, but the raw conversation that this film creates is its true purpose. White Girl invites its audience to a conversation on the topics of gentrification, socio-economic issues, the party scene and rape culture, leaving some with a sense of discomfort in their reality.
“I want people to think about the film,” Wood told Indie Wire. “I know there are plenty of times I walk out of a movie theater and am just thinking about what I want to eat, so if the film is on their mind, it was a triumph.”
Leah’s frizzy platinum blonde hair and charismatic, yet loony smile gives for a captivating performance. Described by Saylor as “ready to party,” “open” and “adventurous,” her character is very complicated in nature as she is still exploring herself while we, the onlookers, simultaneously try to figure her out. New to the streets of the Big Apple, Leah gets a sobering reality check when she realizes she’s a young, white woman in an environment inhabited by generations of people of color, also riddled with machismo. When she’s left with the dangerous task of selling Blue’s large amount of cocaine, she makes full use of the leverage behind her body and the color of her skin. “She’s dealing with the implications of being white, of being female and also cocaine,” Wood said to The Wrap. “This is a girl exploring the world in its own, realizing her whiteness, realizing the power structure of what it means to use sex, to use being a woman, to use race.”
Set wise, it’s New York City down to the core, with bodegas and fire escapes galore, and an orchestra of police sirens and train screeches. You get a sense of familiarity when watching the film, which is already being compared to Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 film, Kids.
Clark has reportedly been a strong influence on Wood during the film’s creation. Kids brought to light the unsettling truth of New York City’s youth and their taboo approach to drugs and sex during the rise of AIDS. Not only did the film make the hairs on your back stand up, but it discussed a controversial topic when no one else did. White Girl is said to be a millennial version of Kids, however, approaching different conversations.
In 2013, Elizabeth Wood earned an MFA in Screenwriting at Columbia University, before penning the screenplay based loosely on her own experiences as an eccentric white girl. “I’ve got intense sensibilities,” Wood described in an interview with Variety. “I just like to feel things. My goal isn’t to shock, it’s to be real and authentic. Which can sometimes be shocking.”
Absorbing that intensity in her writing, she completed the screenplay for White Girl and began production in 2015, despite budgeting problems. When her financier dropped out last minute, Wood relied on budget cuts and private investors to bring her project to fruition. Soon thereafter, her widely talked-about film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival with a nomination for the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It also won first place at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Later, the film’s streaming rights were picked up by Netflix.
White Girl will be released in select theaters on Sept. 2. For information on early, private screenings, visit here.