In White Girl, Morgan Saylor (you know her as Brody’s daughter on Homeland) plays Leah, a rising sophomore at a New York City liberal arts college, who’s decided not to go home to Oklahoma for the summer. Instead, she’s interning for a Vice-like hipster magazine and crashing with her best friend Katie (India Menuez) in a cheap rental they’ve landed in some ungentrified corner of Ridgewood, Queens.
Bright-eyed, apple-cheeked, her hair a halo of platinum, frizzed-out curls, Leah seems the picture of Midwestern innocence. It’s an image that she uses to her advantage when convenient, and one she actively subverts the rest of the time.
White Girl, as the title suggests, is about the way first impressions, skin-deep snap judgments, determine our lives. When we first meet her, Leah, with Katie, is moving into her apartment, hauling a sofa up the stairs as a gang of jeering Puerto Rican gangbangers watches from across the street. Spent, the roommates take a break, smoke a bowl, languorously cuddle in the way stoned young girls sometimes do. Fawn-like, pot-addled, dressed in the skimpiest of outfits, they seem prone, easy targets.
And so writer-director Elizabeth Wood, who based White Girl on her own hard-partying exploits as a Midwestern college student in New York City, lures us into her trap. Leah is less innocent than blithely naïve, less prey than predator, at least in her own mind. It’s not long before she’s seduced one of those Puerto Rican gangbangers, the sweet-hearted, romantic-to-a-fault Blue (Brian Marc). “What kind of girl do you think I am?” she asks coyly, batting away his hand as he tries to put it up her skirt. Cut to the two of them unceremoniously fucking on the roof of her building.
Blue’s a petty drug dealer with a strict ethical code: he “doesn’t fuck with people who do coke,” and he “doesn’t fuck around in the city.” A couple days under his new girlfriend’s spell and he’s in deep with both. An increasingly coked-up Leah convinces him to start selling to the deep-pocketed partiers at the Chinatown nightclub where her lecherous boss Kelly (Justin Bartha) hangs out. Once Blue gets a taste of Manhattan money, he doubles down, procuring thousands of dollars of product on credit from his supplier, the wild-eyed, blood-thirsty Lloyd (Adrian Martinez).
And then he’s arrested, entrapped by a neighborhood rat and an undercover cop, thrown up against the glass of a restaurant window to be cuffed as Leah, holding the brick of drugs, unmolested, unnoticed, stands by and watches.
Much of White Girl concerns Leah’s efforts to unload the stash for enough money to pay back Lloyd and for the expensive lawyer (Chris Noth) she hopes will save Blue from a third-strike prison sentence. The impunity with which she deals—excepted from any consequences, she cavorts around the club topless, dancing up on strangers and dangling baggies of blow in their faces—is matched only by the impunity with which she tries to fuck her way out of any sticky situation. (It’s here that White Girl makes its most nuanced observations about identity; Leah’s white-girl privilege may make her virtually invisible to the cops, but a woman desperate for money and on the wrong side of the law quickly becomes vulnerable to a different kind of persecution.)
She wants to clean up the mess she’s made—and aspires to the pedestal Blue has her on—but, as we’re reminded repeatedly, she doesn’t strictly have to. After Lloyd pays her a terrifying visit at her apartment, she weepingly asks Kelly to lend her money, blurting out, “The dealer knows where I live!”
“So then move!” Kelly retorts. And that, of course, is the big difference between Leah and Blue: She’s on vacation in the hood, a tourist in the land of drug dealing; he lives there.
It won’t be news to anyone that young, middle-class white girls enjoy countless privileges unavailable to poor Puerto Rican boys, nor that middle-aged, well-educated white men—like Kelly, like Blue’s lawyer—are the most privileged of all. But to see it dramatized, and in such raw, unremittingly cynical, outrageously graphic detail, is still a disturbing shock to the system.
White Girl is a wild ride, the exhilaration of the party and the bitterness of the hangover in one 88-minute package. I spoke to Wood about mining her own past, fielding scathing reviews—critics have called the film depraved—and working with Morgan Saylor on some of the most explicit sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie.
The inspiration for Leah’s story dates back to your earliest days in college in New York. Why make this film now?
I knew at the time I was having these experiences that they would be my first film. But I also knew that it would take some time to figure out what really happened, and also to figure out how to make a movie. I had an impulse to make the film all myself: I was going to film it, edit it, get friends to act in it. I’m really glad I slowed down. Taking the time makes the difference in figuring out what you’re really trying to say.
Did you run into trouble getting funding, both as a woman director and because you were trying to tell this graphic, dark, outré story?
It was very hard to get funding just being a first-time director. Male or female, it’s hard to explain to someone why you deserve their million dollars. Two times, traditional funding fell through. Both times, last second [investors] got cold feet and pulled out.
It needed to be a summer movie and we were creeping into fall. I thought, We’re just going to have to wait another year. My producer, who is also my husband, said, We’re going to make this happen no matter what. He went to a million people. We cut the budget by half a million, cut thirty pages, and made it the way we could. Really you just have to make the film you can make. Tangerine was made on a cell phone. It’s more important that you make the film than that you make a bigger budget film.
Did you get any specific feedback about the subject matter from potential investors?
I think I had one meeting where the guy was a total asshole. He was like, No one will ever watch this movie.
Variety gave you a really negative, handwringing early review about the depravity of the film. Do you feel like people either get it or they don’t?
Yes. I think, luckily, so far, more people have gotten it than haven’t. The Variety
Have male and female critics responded differently?
I have felt that way; I’m not sure I’m not jumping to conclusions. But it seems like the majority of responses that were really scandalized were men focusing on the overt sexuality, whereas even what seem like conservative females have come up to me afterwards and whispered that this story spoke to them, they didn’t often see female sexuality portrayed realistically.
Going into this, I had been quite sexist in my prediction that it was going to be women responding more strongly, whereas men would be somehow entertained by it. It’s been the other way around. It’s interesting to me that sexuality upsets people more than talking about race, or privilege, or gender, even.
The film has also gotten some knocks: for its title, for its point of view on white privilege. But you’re not celebrating white privilege; you’re observing the disturbing ways that it functions.
I think people who haven’t watched it have made assumptions, and posted responses on the Internet. I mean, Leah is in many ways the bad guy, the one who instigates a lot of the stickier situations. I’m quite critical of this character, 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. If not, then you should watch something else. Watch TV.
Someone said, Did you feel that you were stereotyping the Latino guy as a drug dealer? I’m like, Did you see that this [white] chick is a drug dealer, and a drug user? She’s way more out of control than he is. I’m trying to work against stereotypes.
The sex scenes in this movie are really, really graphic. What conversations did you have with Morgan Saylor about what she would have to do onscreen?
It was important to me to find an actress actually that age, 19, not 27 playing 19. That’s like a different human. I was also very worried: What kind of young actress would want to play this role? I imagined someone quite out of control.
Morgan Saylor is nothing like Leah. She’s studying math right now at the University of Chicago. She plays a makeup-less nun in her next film. She dresses quite buttoned-up, a bit reserved.
She was so dedicated to this project. We started meeting months and months beforehand. Because she’s so in love with math, she made these mathematical charts, so that when we shot out of order, she could refer to where we were on the axis, all the different variables. She kept such detailed notes. I felt I couldn’t have a more responsible partner.
The nudity was daunting for both of us. We talked a lot about movies we both liked where we see nudity. Was it exploiting the actress, or was it part of the story of this character? We agreed that the nudity in this film was necessary to tell this very raw story.
But even when we were filming these scenes, I felt sick to my stomach. People would tap me on the shoulder and say, Okay, that’s enough, say cut. I’d say, You know what? I feel so uncomfortable. But the fact that everyone is starting to squirm, I think that means we’re onto something. Those takes would be two, three, four minutes long. But it was the end we would use, when it would start feeling really real.
What were the movies that came up?
I think we talked a lot about Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, as this character who goes on this extreme journey. It’s sexual, it’s religious, but it’s so necessary.
I kept thinking about The Diary of a Teenage Girl. There’s something about a movie made by a woman about a young woman’s sexuality, where the nudity just feels different.
I think it would have been a lot harder if I were a man. We could have frank conversations about sexuality and experience. When something felt uncomfortable we could talk through it. Even so there were really challenging moments on set. But she just trudged through. She’s my hero.
There’s also full frontal male nudity.
Yeah! It’s so unfair; girls are always naked. It’s like, Hey guys, your turn, let’s see what you got! It’s not all to be sexy; it’s to be real. It takes two to tango, baby.
You cast the musician Brian Marc as Blue, the male lead. You’ve spoken before about having trouble finding a Puerto Rican actor to play this Puerto Rican character.
It’s incredible, in New York City, with a very large, talented Puerto Rican community, and the casting databases have zero. I went to an agency in Hollywood, and they were suggesting I cast Lil’ Romeo. I was like: He’s black! Then Dave Franco. I was like, He’s white! Then a friend of mine who works at Genius.com, the music website, said everyone there is flipping for this singer. So he came in, and I was like, in one second, obviously it’s him. He had these sparkling eyes. Women were falling all over themselves for him. It was like, yeah, definitely, this girl will get him out of jail.
Christine Vachon, your executive producer, also produced Harmony Korine’s Kids, and White Girls is drawing a lot of comparisons to that movie. Did Kids make a big impact on you?
It surely did. I was like 12, in Portland, Oregon. I snuck in to see it with a friend. Then my parents saw it by accident, and said, Oh, we have to take you to see this movie! It shows what happens if you do bad things. I’m like, no, I’m not doing that with you!
Meanwhile, I got my hands on a VHS and showed it to everyone I could. I’d never seen a film that spoke so honestly. I wouldn’t say this film is my homage, but I am certainly complimented that people are saying it feels authentic and real, because that’s the connection.
You’re now a mother to a young son. Has your relationship to those wild, formative years changed since becoming a parent?
I have a lot of compassion for myself. I try not to judge myself more than I do already, from a Midwestern Christian background. There’s plenty of guilt, but besides that!
If anything, having a child has just made me work harder. I think it was the turning point in me actually making this film. I had a newborn. He came three weeks early, and I hadn’t finished my draft. I literally stayed awake every night for the first weeks, writing.
Sometimes it turns out that the wilder your parents were, the better behaved you are. You want to impress them by being serious. Famous last words. But I had very well-behaved parents, you know?
How have they responded?
They’re just endlessly supportive. They’re like, Great, honey! We’ll go see every screening this weekend! I’m like: Thank you! Please don’t.
This interview has been condensed and edited.