“Don’t worry, I got this,” Leah (Morgan Saylor) tells Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc) as he sits in jail, shortly after being apprehended for a small amount of cocaine. Though all evidence writer/director Elizabeth Wood provides up to that point in her fierce directorial debut “White Girl” would suggest the contrary, Leah is convincing in her confidence to spring him from the pen, if for no other reason than it seems like it should be so easy, just another fun thing to do in New York after a night in which just after meeting, the two sweated it up on the dance floor, had passionate rooftop sex and visited Blue’s supplier Lloyd (Adrian Martinez) to set themselves up for the kind of score that could keep the good times going forever. With the rest of Blue’s cocaine bounty left in her possession after his arrest, Leah thinks she can find the cash to get her new boyfriend released, but she knows she carries around something even more valuable — she’s young, nubile and white.
Leah’s sense of privilege is ultimately what gets her into such deep trouble in “White Girl,” but it’s why Wood’s first feature is so provocative, with the ideas of it rising above its considerable decadence. A living nightmare to watch, what makes the film so thrilling is to feel Leah’s exhilaration at finding herself in the middle of a “Law & Order” episode like the ones she probably watched with her parents in Oklahoma City, dirtying herself up with an experience that will finally give her something to pitch at the trendy magazine where she’s an unpaid intern. (In the context of this warped fantasy, having Chris Noth showing up as George, the scuzzy attorney Leah contacts to help Blue is inspired.) She barely unpacks her things at the walk-up she shares with a similarly cornpoke roommate (India Menuez) before hitting the clubs and is quickly seduced by Blue, not necessarily by who he is, but by the fact his skin is a darker shade than hers and he has drugs to offer. To be fair, Blue isn’t looking for a soulmate, either, assuming immediately Leah has “rich friends” whose hands he can put his product in.
The bad choices that follow allow Wood to indulge in the kind of craziness that would make the boys of “The Hangover” blush, as Leah scrambles to figure out how she can pay both George and Lloyd while dipping into the remaining coke for her own satisfaction. But the rationale behind those choices is equally engaging and sound, no matter how outrageous they seem to anyone but Leah, with the writer/director’s trenchantly detailing how Leah’s actions are informed by class, race, and feminine instincts. At first, the film would appear to be single-minded in its desire to shock when Leah is swept into her boss’s (Justin Bartha) office early in the film to snort lines off his desk that seems like the type of overheated prose she might write to grab attention, but as a sense of perspective gradually enters the film with each person Leah torches in her efforts to prove to herself she can hang — and some doing the same to her, “White Girl” reaches the ecstatic heights its heroine can only attain with help from narcotics.
The palpable sense of danger in “White Girl” isn’t confined to its storyline, but also the film’s bold presentation, from Saylor’s fearless performance as Leah to Wood’s devil-may-care direction, following her lead down into every dank bathroom stall for a hit or out a car window to feel the breeze in her hair. With cinematographer Michael Simmonds behind the camera, there is a feverish quality to Leah’s quest to rock bottom, the excitement and uncertainty of it all somehow blended and ingrained into every frame. Each sexual transaction — and they are pointedly transactions — are staged completely different from each other, extraordinarily conscious of the power dynamics at play and Leah’s refracted sense of self. It’s in those moments and many others in “White Girl,” you realize that in telling the story of a woman who may overestimate her own power in some respects, Wood, just one film in, is in full command of hers and the result is awesome.
“White Girl” opens on September 2nd in limited release. A full list of theaters and dates is here.