When “White Girl” begins, we know immediately who she is. Her denim-clad butt fills the screen as she and her roommate lift a couch out of a moving van, eyeing the Hispanic boys on their non-gentrified street warily. The scene is set up as a space where white alternative culture intersects with low-income, racialized spaces. “White Girl” is an unflinching look at the subject of its title, a disassembling of the privileges associated with being white, a girl and a white girl.
Leah (Morgan Saylor, “Homeland”), a wealthy liberal arts student working as an unpaid magazine intern, starts dating Blue (Brian Marc, “Nerve”), a Hispanic drug dealer in her new neighborhood. Against his better judgment, he agrees to sell cocaine at a party in Manhattan. When he gets arrested, Leah starts selling his stash to pay for a lawyer to get him out of jail.
“We’re going to figure it out,” she promises. Blue eyes her skeptically. “You really think that?” “I always figure it out,” she says confidently. His eyes flicker away. He doesn’t believe it.
And why should he? Blind to her entitlement, Leah exercises none of the restraint that Blue and his pals have to live by. Her warm, orange-lit encounters with Blue contrast with the stark, bright scenes at the office with her boss or in his airy loft. Whenever she enters Blue’s darkly saturated world, she does so only to flirt with rebellion. She revels in wild drug use, frenzied threesomes in club bathrooms and crazy parties with her all-white friends and coworkers hosted in minority-dominated neighborhoods.
In revealing these privileges, “White Girl” doesn’t make judgments; it simply observes. The camera is a voyeur, peeking at its subjects from above a bathroom stall door, around the stairs. We see Leah’s white friends, a tangle of wire-rimmed glasses and shaggy hair smoking weed in her living room, sequestered off from the non-gentrified streets below. “I’d rather live in a dorm than a weird area like this,” someone comments. When Leah invites Blue and his friends over, her roommate objects, pulling her aside and hissing angrily, “but my camera’s sitting right out there!”
Once Leah starts dealing, her life spirals downward. Though her under-eye makeup smudges grow darker each time she meets with the lawyer, her self-destruction is buffered by her entitlement. In comparison, her ignorance creates larger consequences for those who lack her racial and economic privilege. She dances wildly at clubs, waving sachets of coke carelessly and helping herself to hits from her stash, yet it’s the sober Hispanic guys who get caught and kicked out of the bar.
The film also probes into how Leah approaches her sexuality. The camera eyes her body hungrily, indulging in gratuitous shots of her legs and chest. Leah knows this, and uses sexual relationships with her boss and others to gain favors. Sometimes she seems to enjoy sex, plain and simple, both in rushed hook-ups with her boss and loving caresses with Blue. But sometimes that power is used against her, and her level of consent ranges from unclear to the viewer to unquestionably violated.
“White Girl” doesn’t set up a preachy, simplistic story of The Oppressed vs. The Oppressors. It frames societal issues in the context of specific character interactions rather than making each character a symbol of an individual dimension of race, gender or class. Leah uses her objectification as power, but she’s also victimized by it; she is immune from facing drug charges, but uses that same privilege to help Blue.
Refreshingly, “White Girl” doesn’t try to simplify the complex and confusing web of power dynamics. It just unveils existing stories for us to ponder, using truth as its ultimate defense.