With its provocative title and gritty subject matter, “White Girl” could be mistaken for B-movie exploitation. But this New York drama is an impressive and heartbreaking debut from writer-director Elizabeth Wood.
The summer before college, Leah (Morgan Saylor of “Homeland”) moves into an apartment in the Ridgewood area of Queens. There’s tension between the white college kids moving into the area and the young Puerto Ricans like Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc) who grew up there, but Leah and Blue fall in love over a common interest: drugs. Blue deals cocaine in Ridgewood, and Leah introduces him to a lucrative new market when she takes him to a party to meet her boss, Kelly (Justin Bartha), and his rich Manhattan friends.
Drug use and explicit sex energize the film’s first act, but things grow sour when Blue gets arrested on a drug charge. The movie becomes a cautionary tale as Leah goes to ever-greater lengths to get her boyfriend out of jail.
Leah isn’t a likable heroine, but Saylor makes her destructive arc understandable — from her naive quest for pleasure through the frightening downward spiral that follows. Her bleached blond mane suggests another kind of B-movie: Leah comes off as the femme fatale in a film noir, leading herself and Blue into a dangerous situation that at least one of them won’t be able to escape.
Michael Simmond’s handheld camerawork evokes the French new wave with a genuine sense of discovery, following what is for the most part an unpredictable path. Equally unexpected is the film’s music, supervised by Josh Kessler, who cast a wide sonic net — contemporary hip-hop blended with tracks from ’80s South Bronx post-punks ESG and even a Prague noise rock band — that provides a melancholy energy.
Less effective are predictable scenes involving the lawyer (Chris Noth) Leah hires to help with Blue’s case. Yet for the most part, the charismatic young leads carry the film. Saylor’s performance is compelling, and Marc is even better as a dealer whose streetwise facade falls to reveal a vulnerable, hopeful young man who dreams of a better life.
Inspired by Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 film “Kids” and by Wood’s own college experience, “White Girl” vividly charts what is at times a violent culture clash. But it is the young lovers’ desperate attempt to bridge the gap between their worlds that makes the film so deeply moving.
R. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains strong language, graphic sex, rape, drug use and violence. 88 minutes.