Review: ‘White Girl,’ a Tale of Cocaine, Sex and Privilege

Sep 02, 2016 · 44 comments
Mike Kueber (San Antonio)
Noth plays a sleazy lawyer, but not a high-powered one. And three strikes in the real world applies to convictions, not arrests.
jjt (there)
anyone who sees this character as 3 dimensional has become too conditioned to accepting the usual 2 dimensional Hollywood fare as a complete depiction of a real woman.
furthermore you can make a complicated, intelligent film about a vapid and shallow character--not everyone has to be likeable.
this is not that film. lol
depicting rape that is not sensationalized or gratuitous is pretty difficult and Wood doesn't have the skill or the talent, building, as she does, solidly on the backs of male directors who have filmed this very same story
SAS (New York, NY)
Agree with Holden that the film is excellent, but this review is garbage. First, he refers to a clear rape scene as "what appears to be rape." There's no ambiguity here. And while I didn't interpret the blow job scene as nonconsensual (other people did - to me it's ambiguous), it certainly wasn't "rewarding him with oral sex." These phrases were tone deaf, and I assume the only reason this review made it past the editors was because they didn't see the film.

Also, he just gets this film wrong on so many levels. It's not just a string of shocking promiscuities over and over again with a tacked on "message" at the end. The ultimate question of the movie is not about "hard partying...for millennials." It's about privilege, what it means to be white, or not white, or a woman, or a man, and yes, a young person, in this society. This film is very insightful, though sometimes hard to watch.

And if you think this film would have been considered misogynistic if written by a man, you either haven't seen the movie or don't know what misogyny is. Leah is portrayed as a flawed, three dimensional human. Just bc there are boobs and even rape in a film doesn't mean there's objectification.

And there's an implied bitterness, an implication that accusations of misogyny are more about attacking male film makers than criticizing sexist, objectified portrayals of women in art, which is itself offensive.

See the film if you have a tough stomach. It's worthwhile.
marike2 (Mamaroneck, NY)
Maybe these reviews should have trigger warnings for people reading them, because I've never seen so many people upset by a movie they haven't seen.
LuckyDog (NYC)
I am waiting for the NY Times to use the term "privileged" in regards to a person who happens to be black, Hispanic or Asian. Because of course they can - but will they? Until then, it is simply racist.
Rachel (Brooklyn)
This review was one of the most disturbing things I've read. I don't know how you could watch that violent assault and say it "appears to be a rape," and I don't know how you could call a man giving his 20 year old employee coke and then shoving her head onto his penis in a coercive sex act that is already happening in an unequal power dynamic, rewarding her boss with oral sex. What Stephen Holden doesn't seem to understand is that young women can be be sexual and have/want to have sexual agency, while also having their agency abused by men.
borabosna (Istanbul)
I don't think you understand what "agency" means. If you are abused, you do not have agency. If you have agency, you are not abused. You are responsible for consequences.

You go to great lengths to deny the main character's agency, because she is female. She did it all willingly. Nobody forced or "coerced" her. Even the female director agrees so. If a male was in the same position, nobody would say he was "coerced." Women always enjoy this "plausible deniability." This is scientifically proven fact: males are punished much more harshly for same mistakes than females:
jjt (there)
"nervous male critics" ...and Stephen is another nervous male critic nervously trying to show how relevant he is by approving this film. what a tool.
This may be a revelation for Stephen: It Is Even More Disappointing for women when a female director pulls this kind of reductive crap. if any of this is remotely based on her own real life experiences (I don't buy it), she's still simply adopted the technique and perspective a male director would use. what's edgy about that?
Arent we finished yet with this era of shock art that demands attention like a shrieking toddler? It will only lead to a full slate of movies about bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, etc etc which in their turn will all become boring. It's a dead end.
borabosna (Istanbul)
She hasn't "adopted the technique and perspective a male director would use". She stood by this film. She fails on her own. But I guess her failure is men's fault too.
Mary Sojourner (Flagstaff, Az.)
Sooooooo, a young woman f-king and s-king indiscriminately - that's usually a sign of early sexual abuse - and, of course, our society is by virtue of images and words in the media, sexually abusive. By the way, folks, women over 18 are women, not girls.
Christopher5500 (New York, NY)
I admittedly have not seen the film. However, I wish the review also included some pictures of women in their late 20s, who after continuing to lead the kind of chosen lifestyle of the film's lead, look like they are sixty: missing teeth, covered in scabs, sunken eye sockets, penniless with long police records and little hope of recovery. These women have long been abandoned by their families, regardless of their privilege. One of my best friends from middle school was the area's resident rich girl, the daughter of a wealthy developer. She very much resembled Ms. Saylor. She died at 38 after contracting a MRSA type infection from dirty needles that traveled from her arm (they amputated to try to stop it) to her heart, which killed her. Any attempt to glamorize drugs and reckless sex is a colossally bad idea, and I am no prude, but I do have two nieces, one close to the age of the lead in this film. Google image search "effects of meth." The real world doesn't look anything like Ms. Saylor or "a rite of passage for bored millennials."
Francine (Westchester County, NY)
the writer describes the movie "whose depictions of greedy drug-taking and promiscuity are inescapably titillating."
Sorry, but we find nothing "titillating," i.e., arousing, about greedy drug-using and promiscuity. That's the problem with films of this kind. Why get aroused by this degenerative lifestyle of those young people who, unlike future leaders of our communities, do nothing socially redeeming?
borabosna (Istanbul)
I don't think you understood his tone. "latest in a continuing line of shockers ... whose depictions of greedy drug-taking and promiscuity are inescapably titillating." He is scolding this line of movies that show drugs and sex as titillating. He goes on to say "if it were directed by a male it would be called misogyny" to imply his scolding. He means that when a female director does this, we are not allowed to scold it.
ACJ (Chicago)
I do wonder if these stories are imaginative creations of what a writer believes to be a millennial trait --- boredom leading to risky behavior. My two millennials wish they had some boredom in their lives---with jobs, children, and mortgages, keep them pretty busy.
Steve3212a (Cincinnati)
Just glorified pornography with the mandatory "social message".
Is there a different word than 'misogyny' to define privileged blondes 'using' black and/or hispanic young men for sex?

Another part of the story which I wonder about is what happens when everybody get busted ? Once they're inside the police station, does the white girl get treated the same way as the black guy?
borabosna (Istanbul)
Criminal sentencing gap between men and women is 62%. Between blacks and whites it's around 10%. So black guy would receive 72% longer punishment than white girl, that is, if white girl gets any punishment at all.
Elizabeth (Olivebridge)
There seems a consensus that real women don't enjoy orgiastic frenzy and bad boys et al. Of course many do and always have. When I was young the call was 'sex drugs and rock and roll'. It still is for many an adventurous young woman. I find your disbelieve a little naive. I can think of many a movie potraying men doing these things. What is the difference? Some like things wild in their youth.
dp (west palm beach, fl)
The difference is that for privileged young women like the one depicted in the film,both past and present, there is always a family safety net waiting in wings to catch her if she falls too far. For the adventurous young woman of average or lower means, a step too far often means that her entire life is ruined or at least a strenuous uphill battle.
borabosna (Istanbul)
Safety net or no, is irrelevant: she should be responsible for the consequences of her actions. "Victim of circumstances" is a bad argument. Plenty of people in "bad circumstances" don't act irresponsibly.
Tom Hughes (Bayonne, NJ)
The reality is far worse than any fictional version could be. You couldn't pay me to sit through five minutes of this.
FSMLives! (NYC)
Is it really 'shocking'?

Because anyone who has ever met people like this knows that 'boring' is more applicable.
sonialuis (Fresh Meadows, NY)
Question for the reporter: among the characters is a "Puerto Rican drug dealer." What about the other characters? best friend Katie, high powered lawyer, magazine boss. Why identify the drug dealer's ethnicity and not the others? I haven't seen the movie - is this central to the movie?
Chimom (Chicago)
Uh, did you notice the title of the movie?
PJ (New York, NY)
Caught the film at Sundance and was surprised by its substance. It sounds from this review and others like next in a long line of "shockers", I suppose that is the inevitable takeaway. But having seen it, I can attest to it mercifully being more than that. It is a well-crafted, and dare I say moving, debut.
Rebecca (New York)
Interesting, because you are correct -- from the review, even though it is a positive one, this film sounds simply awful.
calhouri (cost rica)
This sounds like she took the politician's (Michael Douglas) wayward/confused/privileged daughter in "Traffic" and spun it out into a film of its own. I might give a look when it shows up online for free, but I wouldn't pay to see it.
rob blake (ny)
Just because it's directed by a woman it's NOT misogynistic?
viola (boston)
good point
jjt (there)
The director said she expected male critics to go easier on her than female critics--they didn't, though. an unconsciously revealing comment on her strategies for getting where she wants to be in life. Pathetic, really -- Just confirms that she's accustomed and trained to cater to the male viewer's appetite (can't say "gaze" anymore, so passe)
But still more pathetic-- as usual, the top rated comment here is whining about imaginary female privilege. Enough already. Enough of this.
girl (chst)
I love my so beautiful .
Thomas M. (San Francisco)
Growing up is hard to do...
william (dallas texas)
reply to tom in frisco . . . so is looking back to the sixties . . . my god, what we did to ourselves and the culture . . . and lived, some of us . . . sad . . .

William Wilson Dallas Texas Dallas press club 1981
LT (New York, NY)
Yep...a man could not have made this film without catching hell. And as a man I immediately asked myself, "Just what was the point in making this film?"
DSM (Westfield)
After Ms. Saylor's dreadful performance as a reckless, promiscuous, totally self-absorbed privileged girl in Homeland, this is her doubling down by adding more sex scenes. If this is, as the reviewer states, her "career defining role", she will have a very repetitive, or better yet, short, career.

As the reviewer aptly notes, if a male directed the film, there would be rampant charges of misogyny and exploitation of young women.

The Times runs monthly pieces where women proclaim that having more women directors would result in portrayals of women as more than just sex objects. This film shows that women directors are just as capable of seeking neither empowerment of women nor even nuanced portrayals of troubled women, but profits through selling brainless young women being treated as living sex toys and enjoying it.
professor (nc)
After Ms. Saylor's dreadful performance as a reckless, promiscuous, totally self-absorbed privileged girl in Homeland - Amen to this!
McQueen (NYC)
"Because Leah is privileged..." Is this kind of biased jargon going to take over every section the paper?
borabosna (Istanbul)
It already did.
Billy's (Sitting Right Here)
Sounds lame. Drug dealer looking people get watched closely and kicked out of clubs because drug dealers are usually associated with gangs and that can lead to violence in the bars. Pretty obnoxious blonde girls get away with being pretty and obnoxious because, while annoying, don't start gang fights.
jjt (there)
yeah I dont buy it--the idealized drug dealer with ties to a cartel and gang bangers goes to jail, and the annoying white girl buying the drugs doesnt, and that shows that she's privileged? gonna have to explain that one again
the white girl tries to keep the drug dealer out of jail using her seductive white girl wiles, is raped for her privileged, normative, white girl sluttiness, and that demonstrates her privilege? again I don't follow

Her getting raped is supposed to balance out the fact that the cops dont arrest her for possession--she comes out even in some kind of perverse equation to calculate her privilege.
Worse, I suspect that, narratively, she is raped so that it will satisfy viewers when she wasn't arrested. It's ok for her to be sexually exploited in this story bc it compensates for some kind of poorly understood female (white!) privilege but more importantly satisfies the anatagonism viewers bring toward every instance in a movie of a white, female, skinny, hot, promiscuous character.

Both the movie and the review are a load of garbage. At least that's consistent.
Mr. Robin P Little (Conway, SC)

I like Morgan Saylor. She plays tough, sad girls well. Her arc in the Homeland TV show's first 3 seasons was almost completely despairing. I hope White Girl does well at the box office, for her sake. It looks a bit unappealing to me as an older, white man who did his share of pot & LSD in the 70s. but never did anything like what Leah and her friends are doing. Whenever I see drug use now, I look for a degraded reality around them, and it is always there.
Mira (new york, new york)
What do you mean by 'a degraded reality'? I just want to make sure that I understand...
EricR (Tucson)
I share your take on Ms. Saylor, as well as your background and experience. There was then what now would be called rampant promiscuity, but it didn't feel (for me) like it does in this film. Here it seems like part of an exercise in self depletion, occurring in a cocoon of indifference, kind of an extension of the valley girls' "whatever" suffused with emo indifference and faux vulnerability. It's like she's wearing a sign that alternately flashes between "kick me" and "help me", not really aware she's wearing a sign at all.
I sort of remember the sense of invulnerability and vaguely recall having the energy and drive to go 2 or 3 days without much sleep. Back then we had neither the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals nor the spectrum of STDs, and there was a cure for most anything you might catch. The number of ways you could harm or kill yourself was almost as limited as the number of TV channels available. Today they're faced with unlimited choices, and like TV, most of them bad. I get it though, it's an extension of whatever drove some of us to smoke dried banana peels, but on steroids.
Many of the worst offenders I knew have gone on to become successful lawyers, dentists and business owners. Some bottomed out and went to jail or died. Thus shall it ever be.
We had a mirror in the Beatles, Stones, etc. Perhaps Ms. Wood and Ms. Saylor are trying to give one to our grandkids?
william (dallas texas)
reply to mr little . . . me too, on both and I saw way too much abuse and very little success in the sixties . . . sad we have made an "icon" out of that era . . .. a very ex ex-hippie in dallas texas

William Wilson dallas texas dallas press club 1981
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