“White Girl,” a cruel story of youth from the writer-director Elizabeth Wood, unfolds in a blur of swift, continuous motion. Young bodies crowd dance floors drenched in sweat and neon. Cocaine is snorted in astonishing quantities and from a highly unorthodox range of surfaces. Sex is dispensed with in terse, orgiastic montages, as if the pursuit of pleasure were secondary to speed and volume.
And through it all the camera races and races to keep up with Leah (the sensational Morgan Saylor), a wild, pleasure-seeking young thing who turns out to be fast in every sense as she hurls herself from one disaster to the next.
The kids are definitely not all right — but were they ever? Every generation seems to conjure its own galvanizing cinematic snapshots of young people in trouble, and “White Girl,” for all its millennial-era novelty, seems more invested in shock than revelation. Loud, flashy and acridly exuberant, an upper and a major downer rolled into one, the movie is one of two vividly cinematic youth portraits this year (the other being Andrea Arnold’s forthcoming “American Honey”) that seem to have been conceived under the spell of “Kids,” the landmark 1995 film about aimless, amoral New York teenagers that put Larry Clark on the map and confirmed the worst fears of parents who saw it.
Like “Kids,” “White Girl” announces the arrival of a director of considerable verve, and its choice of style and subject toes a similarly tricky line between leering exploitation and unflinching portraiture. As some scandalized critics were heard to remark after the movie’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the fact that Wood is a woman (and drew the script from her own personal experience) may have inoculated her against the charges of misogyny that would have greeted the film under a male nom de plume.
Misogyny, of course, boils down to hatred, and Wood’s attitude toward her protagonist — her appreciation of Leah’s determination and resourcefulness as well as her sometimes awesome stupidity — might more accurately be described as extremely tough love. Certainly the director doesn’t hate her protagonist, and if Leah at times seems to solicit the audience’s contempt, she also seems curiously impervious to it. She truly lives like no one’s watching.
About to begin her sophomore year at an unspecified college in New York, Leah initially seems all too dismissible with her impossibly short shorts and her vague aspirations of working in “media.” But Wood has a knack for simultaneously acknowledging and sidestepping stereotypes, and the movie has sly fun teasing its characters (and by extension, the audience) for the snap judgments they might be inclined to make based on class, color and appearance.
Within minutes of moving into a Queens apartment with her friend Katie (India Menuez), Leah approaches the boys hanging out near the building and hits them up for pot; they rebuff her assumption that they’re drug dealers, never mind that it turns out be entirely correct. Before long she’s on a rooftop kissing one of them, a Puerto Rican hottie named Blue (the rapper Brian “Sene” Marc). As his hand slips below her waist, Leah pulls away with half-hearted coyness: “What kind of girl do you think I am?”
A reasonable question, to which a reasonable viewer might reply that she’s the kind of girl who likes to do coke and orally service her boss, Kelly (Justin Bartha, breathtakingly sleazy), at the magazine where she has an unpaid summer internship. She’s also the kind of girl who, when Blue gets arrested and faces a 20-year prison sentence for drug dealing, embarks on an increasingly reckless course of action to save him, one that will involve Kelly, Blue’s dealer (Adrian Martinez) and a high-powered attorney (Chris Noth), every one of them a different kind of predatory sleazeball.
Fearless to the point of insanity, Leah storms through the movie with some semblance of a plan, yet she’s never too focused to get sidetracked by the thrill of a three-way bathroom hook-up — or the opportunity to consume some of Blue’s one-pound cocaine stash, which she’s trying to sell off in order to pay the lawyer.
The movie’s lowest moments find Leah becoming a willing participant in her own debasement, and Saylor’s intensely physical performance becomes mesmerizing, even heroic, in its utter refusal of the audience’s sympathy. (The actress knows a thing or two about that, having played by the widely loathed Dana Brody on “Homeland.”)
In short, “White Girl” isn’t one of those upbeat ghetto fables where cleverness and ingenuity win the day and the plucky underdog beats the system at its own game. Like Leah herself, the film isn’t especially goal-oriented; it chases the thrill of the high and luxuriates in its own disreputability. The story floats along like an intoxicating cloud of vice — an effect that Wood achieves with a throbbing, surging soundtrack and an alternately propulsive and hypnotic sense of camera movement. By the time the sensory rush dissipates and the hangover sets in, only Wood’s sharply observant social critique remains.
What kind of girl is Leah? The title is street slang for cocaine, but it is also, of course, a provocative reference to Leah herself — an invitation to view her predicament through the race, gender and class disparities tugging insistently at the story’s margins. You can sense it in the lecherous sneer she gets from almost every man on screen, but you can also sense it in Leah herself — in her naive assumptions about the legal system, and in the rank privilege that allows her to subject her body and brain to so much pummeling abuse, to take nothing and no one in life seriously. The very qualities, curiously enough, that have made her the unstoppable heroine of this unexpectedly potent movie.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood; and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica