Elizabeth Wood may be a young filmmaker, still soaking up directorial lessons and figuring it all out, but she knew exactly what she was doing when she decided to call her first full-length feature, a semi-biographical film set in Ridgewood, White Girl. The label is alluring, gnawing, and sorta yucky all at once. Hilton Als wrote an entire collection of essays, White Girls, devoted to decoding the concept, which he determines is somewhere between an actual state of being and a mirage, both an all-powerful fantasy and the ideal object to be controlled : “Once I lived in a perpetual state of disbelief: How could one be a white girl and hate it? Wasn’t she— whoever she was— everything the world saw and wanted?”
It’s a pejorative, a term commonly attached to catcalls that’s less poetic than, say, “snowflake.” It’s “white girl wasted.” It’s a spoiled, naive little girl. It’s complaining too much. It’s traveling abroad and refusing to eat a stew made with chicken broth. It’s infantilizing, condescending, and rarely a compliment. It’s also a nickname for cocaine.
So the title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue– instead it flops out provocatively, announcing itself a lot like the character in White Girl who acts as a stand-in for Elizabeth Wood’s young self. Wood is roughly reborn in the film as Leah– a vivacious young transplant who moves to pre-gentrification Ridgewood. On the surface of things, the narrative centers around that familiar problem of drug dealing– what happens when you start chipping away at your own product. Soon after settling down in the neighborhood, Leah meets Brian Marc, better known as Blue, a Puerto Rican kid who hangs out on the block with his friends. He’s a smalltime drug dealer, selling dimebags and occasionally hooking people up with coke. The two begin a whirlwind romance filled with partying, sexing, and lots and lots of cocaine, which Blue gets on the cheap. You know, kid stuff.
It’s an old-fashioned bender until the couple hatch a dicey plan to go “big time, like Bonnie and Clyde,” Blue says, by getting the stuff in bulk and cashing in on Leah’s moneyed connections at the magazine where she’s an intern. The couple convince the scary big-time dealer holding quantity to front them a large mound of blow and start selling it at parties in the city. I won’t spoil the rest, but I will say that Leah and Blue don’t end up on a resort beach in Acapulco.
For all the sex, drugs, and sweaty New York City summer nights, it’s not surprising that the movie has been compared to Kids, Harmony Korine’s 1995 film about New York City teens run amok in the age of AIDS. The two share a producer, Christine Vachon, and they’re both low-budget films that eschew sensational alarmism and instead embrace a sometimes harsh, sometimes just fun, but always messy reality.
“I saw that film when I was 12, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell fucked up stories– because I realized that there was a place for them in the world,” Wood recalled. “If anything, I think it made me want to move to New York and go crazy.”
Beyond the drug money subplot, there’s a kind of memoir running through White Girl. The script draws on the filmmaker’s own experience of moving to New York City from Oklahoma to attend college, which is reflected in the film through Leah’s head-on collision with reality. For Wood, the heart of the story lies in the transition from naive kid to self-aware
“white girl” and understanding all the power, privilege, potential, and precariousness that comes with that label.
“I think [the film] comes from the experience of being a young liberal arts student in New York City,” Wood explained, shifting to a feigned haughty tone for that last bit and then taking a second to laugh at herself. “I was writing about my experiences [during that time], which led me to make a film, which allowed me to investigate further the reasons I was doing certain things.”
Mainly, lots and lots of partying. As Leah explains in the film, “I really like drugs.” This was equally true for Wood, at that particular time in her life, anyway.
But White Girl also positions itself very much within a particular place, Ridgewood, at a time when the rumblings of major demographic shifts were starting to appear (i.e. Leah and her roommate, Katie). As a college student, Wood had already been living in New York for a few years when she moved to Ridgewood in the early aughts, a neighborhood she knew nothing about. One of her two roommates (there’s only one in the film) was fresh off the boat from Oklahoma, but Wood herself had never spent a summer in the city.
“It’s just like alive and electric in summer, and we loved it,” she said. “We realized, we were actually the first gentrifiers in this neighborhood. All these boys said, ‘We haven’t seen a white girl here in forever.’ And we started being friends because it was hilarious to all of us.”
Suddenly, her education– acquired from courses on race as a social construct, ethnicity, gender, and class at Eugene Lang, the liberal arts college at the New School– began to materialize in her own life. “[It was] just as, you know, a really young person, I would say a child, would be understanding this for the first time and at the same time realizing the power and complications of your sexuality and how all these things as a white woman intertwine, was like really heavy shit,” she remembered.
When I met Wood at the Jane Hotel in Chelsea, I was immediately struck by how open she was about this time in her life. “My policy was blanket ‘yes,’ even when it shouldn’t have been,” she admitted.
I immediately thought of Cat Marnell– pretty, unabashedly girly, into drugs (at one time anyway), super smart, and wry– and I immediately liked her. Years later, Wood’s life is completely different from the one portrayed in White Girl. She’s married now and has a kid, and lives in a Chelsea brownstone that her husband’s grandmother bought on the cheap in the ’50s. She described the place as a “completely falling-down disaster.”
“Now, if I say ‘yes’ now, it’s because I actually wanna do it and not because I need more fun,” she said. “Maybe I even need less fun. No, that’s not true, I still need a lot of fun.”
When Wood moved to Ridgewood, the neighborhood wasn’t booming with new coffee shops, wine bars, and transplants who insist on calling it Bushwick even though, you know, no big deal but they’re in Queens. So there were fewer opportunities for her and her friends to play at the ol’ game of reinforcing social segregation.
“We were very aware of our presence and really wanted to, perhaps, overcompensate, because here we are Eugene Lang students studying race and gentrification and just discovering that for the first time in our lives and then you’re also living it,” she recalled. “It’s a welcome-to-New-York experience that a lot of people from other places probably have when they get here.”
It was an especially strange time for the neighborhood. Shortly after moving in, the blackout of 2003 hit during high summer. Based on Wood’s recollections, it sounds a lot like how Hurricane Sandy played out, if you weren’t one of the people who had to deal with the resulting pain of the disaster, you were probably among the people having a blast, bonding with strangers, and making disaster friends. “It was this introduction to the neighborhood– it was so fun, there were bonfires and the deli gave away ice cream and beer, and everyone was partying,” she recalled. “We really fell in love with this neighborhood.”
That’s why Wood insisted that the film be set during the summertime, low budget be damned. The crew had to shoot the film in winter, which is shocking when you see the movie– it’s all sweat, sizzling sidewalks and intense, slanted sunlight. “In the fight scene outside, it was negative 10 degrees, but it was so important to me that it was summer,” she explained. This made for some post-production color correction that feels like pure, manic sunshine. “The film is totally crazy colors, but to me that’s the way things feel when you’re having crazy times— everything is intense.”
Wood and her roommates became close friends with the guys on the block, just as Leah and Katie befriend the Puerto Rican neighborhood boys in the film, including Blue’s friends Nene and Kilo. The friends quickly found out that their differences extend all the way down to the ways in which they party. The boys poke fun at the girls for buying cocaine and prefer to smoke weed and sip beers.
At the same time in her own life, Wood was inspired to make her first short film. She started writing too, and maintains that even in the moment, she knew her first big film would be about this erratic time in her life. “The first video I ever made was a documentary about these boys who sold drugs on my corner that I had become friends with and it kind of contrasted them versus my friends at school who were bragging about all the drugs they did, and didn’t give a fuck. But these kids [on the block] didn’t do any drugs at all.”
In the film, Leah spends her summer days interning at an unnamed magazine. As a one-time intern at the Vice offices in Williamsburg, I almost spit out my beer when the scene switched to Leah at work. The open floor plan, the constant parties lingering in the background, the army of (once upon a time) unpaid interns sitting quietly in front of a computer looking lost, are all vague hints. But– for me, anyway– the dead giveaway was Kelly, the arrogant, scumbag editor who treats the publication like his personal hypemachine and the interns like a harem of easy lays. At one point he lures Leah into the room, an encounter that ends in lines of coke and a blowjob.
So this has to be Vice, right? “A lot of people feel that way– no comment,” Wood responded with a smile and sipped her drink as if to say something along the lines of, “But that’s none of my business.”
I mentioned that I’d be an intern there once, and Wood chuckled. “Suck alotta dick?”
Leah’s love interest in the film, Blue, is pretty true to Wood’s own experience with a guy she simply referred to as her “friend”: “It’s this kind of doomed love story, and being too young and a whole world [apart], all of society organized against it ever being able to work out– it’s racial, it’s socioeconomic, it’s age, it’s situation, it’s maturity,” she said, referring to her real life experience. “Yeah, that was really this kind of, to me, Romeo and Juliet on coke.”
Just like the film, at a certain point all that intensity found her standing at the edge of a cliff. “That was before things got dark,” Leah said.
When Blue gets arrested outside of a Chinese restaurant, the cops throw him up against a window outside– meanwhile Leah’s frozen in terror, but safe inside the restaurant. Somehow, the cops don’t even see her, which implies that as a white girl she’s invisible and impervious to the criminal justice system.
Wood may have crafted the blow plot as a narrative propellant, but the police trouble was too real. “When my friend got arrested, it was kind of like reality set in– the stakes just became a lot higher,” she said. “We were young and, I think, out of control.”
At the time, the notoriously harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws were still in effect, which meant mandatory minimum sentencing even for non-violent repeat drug offenders. Wood witnessed first hand how the criminal justice system is directly skewed by race. “It seemed like my connection to this friend was influencing the judicial system,” she said.
This bleak reality is mirrored in the film. It’s clear that, without Leah’s help, Blue would have been without proper legal representation. Even the lawyer she approaches initially points out that the case is hopeless. The only thing that changes that is a thick wad of cash, and Leah’s unrelenting support. She even agrees to go on a date with the much-older lawyer, who proceeds to rape her once she’s good and passed out.
I asked whether, in real life, Wood has maintained contact with her friend. “Out of touch,” she said. “He’s the only person in my life that I’ve ever lost touch with, who was important to me. I’ve somehow kept up with everyone but him.”
The film’s harshest critics seem to downplay or completely miss the emotional crux of the story, apparently thrown off by an attractive young woman behaving badly, in their view. People can’t seem to get past the fact that, yes, just like men, it’s normal for women to try drugs, party all night, and have casual sex.
“Sometimes people ask, is something wrong with this character? Was this character abused or [did she experience] fucked-up sexual shit? It’s like, no,” Wood explained. She acknowledged that Leah does engage in some things that go a bit beyond the “fucked up shit” that everyone does, but that it doesn’t necessarily indicate pathology. It can also just stem from straight-up rebellion, a reaction against the banality and safety of the middle class burbs. “You just want to feel what pain feels like, feel what life feels like, and you really do feel invincible,” she said.
One of Wood’s anecdotes really emphasized how different her world was growing up in Oklahoma. When I asked her what her parents thought of the film, she admitted that she was terrified to show it to them. She recalled that, not surprisingly, they were super supportive, but when she approached them later on to hear their thoughts, she received a rather interesting answer from her mother: “She was like, ‘Well, your father and I have been talking a lot, and we decided this film was a way that you processed the trauma you experienced from 9/11 and the World Trade Center.”
A few male critics at Sundance weren’t exactly on that 9/11 level, but they were quick to bash the sorta raunchy sex scenes. Wood found their Puritanism pretty shocking, and pointed out, correctly, that “everybody has sex.”
“The only negative blowback I got [at Sundance] was from a few guys, but I was shocked that the sexual material had scandalized them so much,” she recalled. “But maybe you expect there are just going to be a few asshole white males who can’t get past sexuality because they have a shame boner and they can’t talk about anything else.”
The sex scenes are almost obligatory, seeing as White Girl is essentially a coming-of-age tale about growing up in America. For Blue, growing up means coming face-to-face with the criminal justice system, a harsh reality that most young men of color will have to contend with. For Leah, becoming an adult means facing that the direct consequences of her freedom, in some cases, can mean the limitations on someone else’s.
“Yeah, man, I was fucking wild,” Wood laughed darkly. “Like sometimes you’re like, I’m alive, I’m well. I had a best friend who recently died, and she didn’t stop. It’s like, of course you never felt like you got that far, you’re always ok, but looking back at the situations that most young people find themselves in, it’s amazing what you go through. And that experimentation really comes from a place of privilege– your world is so safe and secure that you can go deep into dark, dangerous waters and feel like you’ll be ok because there is this safety net.”