The Girls Behind ‘White Girl’: A Conversation With Elizabeth Wood And Morgan Saylor
The director and star on white privilege, sex, and the making of the coming-of-age drama
Photos by Nicholas Hunt and Jason Kempin / Getty Images
As the title suggests, White Girl is a movie that doesn’t shy away from controversy. A directorial feature debut from writer-director Elizabeth Wood, this Sundance sensation (that caused one very scathing review when it first came out) has been already labeled by many as a hybrid of Kids, Spring Breakers, and Thirteen.
Inspired by some of Wood's own experiences, the film, which finally hits New York theaters today, chronicles the story of a titular white girl, Leah (played by Homeland alum Morgan Saylor), who comes to New York from Oklahoma for college. After moving in with her best friend Katie (played by a Pre-Raphaelite-esque India Menuez) into a yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood in Ridgewood, Queens, occupied mostly by Puerto Rican drug dealers, Leah boldly solicits the softhearted leader Blue (played by newcomer Brian 'Sene' Marc) for some pot. Fast-forward a few scenes and the two are in a sexual relationship.
What follows is a coke-fueled whirlwind through New York’s gritty apartments and streets, filled with violence, sexism, and institutional racism. When Blue gets arrested, Leah, who, for reasons known, goes unnoticed by the cop, ends up with thousands of dollars worth of cocaine. In an attempt to save him, she decides to sells the drugs herself—to pay for a seedy white lawyer (in an unexpected turn of events, played by Chris Noth) who is a little too eager to help her out. What follows involves topless nightclub dancing, snorting more coke than actually selling it, and waking up in club bathroom following a drug-induced threesome.
While similarities to coming-of-age movies of the independent film circuit’s past are many, what sets White Girl apart from its predecessors is the film’s authentic rawness. Leah's story feels like more than a cautionary tale; she is a real young woman, who is sexually liberated and, yeah, makes some bad decisions fueled by drugs, but whose biggest actual fault is that she is young and hungry for knowledge of the world and life experiences. There is no doubt that Leah is in control of herself as she makes the first move on Blue, charms him into recklessly abandoning his long-standing rule of not dealing drugs in Manhattan, and decides on her own to sell the drugs. Wide-eyed and equipped with a charming smile, an angelic head of curls, and a sense of bravado that’s only known to the young, at first glance, Leah appears to be the picture-perfect image of suburban innocence. But while she may be young, she is not ignorant, something that becomes clear when she uses her gender, sexuality, and whiteness to her advantage.
Leah’s whiteness helps her dodge the law that puts Blue in jail, but it does bring about a different set of predators: white men who are only too keen to prey on women who are comatose or in desperate need of help. While she may be seen as taken advantage of, she knowingly accepts the advances of her boss not because she can't decline him but because she doesn't want to. The proof of her awareness is when she swats away the cab driver who attempts to feel her up as she unconsciously lies in the back of the car. By making Leah's interactions with men openly sexual, Wood rejects the old-fashioned and, truth be told, sexist idea that a modern-day woman's experience of falling in love isn’t sexual. And if anyone has doubts that Leah is an independent woman, look no further to one of the last scenes: When she's given the traditionally “happy ending,” she has a suspicion that she doesn't want it.
Of course, Leah is still an embodiment of the "white girl" stereotype. She's getting a liberal arts degree, working as an unpaid intern at a magazine, and has little direction for her future aside from "maybe wanting to work in the media." Leah’s white privilege is the most flinch-inducing when she goes to see Blue in jail following his arrest. As he reveals to her that is his third strike, meaning that there is a very slim chance that he will get out, she responds with a simple "I always figure it out” and a flash of her breasts. That unsurprisingly entails calling her parents and asking them for money and making cash off deep-pocketed white kids by selling them overpriced coke.
The real horror of white privilege is exemplified by the white men of the film, though: Noth’s lawyer and Leah’s equally salacious boss, who in another surprising turn of events is played by Justin Bartha. It’s already hard not to think about cases like Brock Turner while Noth's character says, “A white kid can stab a person and get away with it with less than a black kid for a small possession of drugs.” But what’s more insidious in the movie’s context is the different manner in which the two of them treat Leah in comparison to an overly romantic Blue. When Leah comes to her boss saying that the drug lord is coming after her, he suggests she move apartments; after the lawyer finds out that she has no money to pay him, he wine and dines her only to eventually take advantage of her without consent, in a scene that’s not for the faint heart, justifying that’s the least she owes him for his services.
The ending is not a new one, which Wood openly acknowledges. It's no news to anyone that white people continue to get away with a slap on the wrist for serious crimes (in this case, not even that), while boys like Blue get charged with years-long sentences for smaller crimes. And as much as Leah skirts the lines of race and gender throughout the film, there comes a realization, for both the viewers and herself, that she is only a visitor in the world where Blue lives and is marginalized; she will one day move out to a better neighborhood and life while he will remain there forever.
While Wood provides an uncomfortable close-up of what youth can look like, she dodges any questions that I ask her about what she wants viewers to take away from the film. “I really don't like giving other people a conclusion,” she says. “I want people to tell me what they got from it.” As for the critics who have taken the movie to be a surface-level tale about sex and drugs, Wood brushes them off. “I can't control what people are going to think, or how the movie does. I can only work on my next project,” she says. “It’s like Jay Z says, 'Treat every song like your first song.' Now, I gotta do it all over again.”
We can’t wait for that.
Read on for our interview with Wood and Saylor on making the movie after the break.