For rising college sophomore Leah (Morgan Saylor), the lead character in first-time director Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl, her first summer in the Big Apple was supposed to be spent focusing on her internship and hanging out with friends. Instead, she falls in love with her neighborhood drug dealer Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), starts selling blow, and spirals out of control from a coke addiction. White Girl is based on Wood’s own experience, giving the confessional drama, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, a visceral edge.
One of White Girl‘s most striking elements is its majority Latino cast. Although Blue and his friends are drug dealers, they’re not broad-stroke stereotypes. Blue is sensitive, confessing that he gets his name from his ever-present sadness. The suave Kilo (Anthony Ramos) approaches Leah’s roommate with enough confidence to win her over. Nene (Ralph Rodriguez) is the joker of the crew, rounding out the other guys who found girlfriends among their gentrifying neighbors.
The last Latino character we’re introduced to is Lloyd, Blue’s unhinged and creepy supplier who’s played by veteran character actor, Adrian Martinez. “I pick my stereotypes carefully, so if it serves the story and the story says something very meaningful then I think it’s ok,” Martinez said at the Sundance premiere party. “If it was just a bunch of drug dealers shooting at each other, I’m not interested.”
If Adrian Martinez looks familiar to you, that’s because the Dominican-Nicaraguan-American actor has cropped up in dozens of movies and TV shows like The Sopranos, Focus, American Hustle, Inside Amy Schumer, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. White Girl, however, finds Martinez in a much darker space.
“I pick my stereotypes carefully, so if it serves the story and the story says something very meaningful then I think it’s ok.”
Once Blue is arrested, Lloyd, looking for repayment of the large stash he had recently handed over to Blue, physically intimidates Leah. It’s a scene, which Martinez insists, he played for laughs. “I don’t usually do those kinds of roles. I felt like it would be a good role to do. Having to be a bad guy with Morgan was like kicking a bunny. It was very hard to be her bully.”
Although the crew is guilty of peddling drugs, it’s made very clear in White Girl that the Latino men are under constant surveillance. At one point, Leah asks why they can’t sell drugs in clubs in Manhattan, and their honest answer is that they aren’t welcome there. Safe in Queens, but without the white privilege to travel unbothered in Manhattan, their experience varies greatly from the white girls. Incidentally, Leah and her roommate partake in heavier drugs than the guys, but they are never stopped or questioned, even when their behavior is out of control.
White Girl also explores its racially conscious subject matter in terms of the justice system. Saddled by a lackluster public defender and three strikes on his record, Blue is almost assured 20 years in prison due to minimum sentencing laws, which studies show affect black and brown offenders more than their white counterparts. Leah naively thinks there’s something she can do about it, because she hasn’t run into the same systemic roadblocks as Blue. It’ll come as no surprise, though, that private lawyers are very expensive and can take advantage of the situation.
Although the set was serious, there were plenty moments of levity. “Everybody in the cast is great. Morgan and Sene, all these people, they’re like blossoming flowers. They’re young and were very spontaneous,” said Martinez of his experience working with them. “They connected to the material and it was very easy to feed off of their energy.”
The film’s personal angle, the clever ways in which the script handles systemic violence, and the love story at the heart of it all worked magic on Sundance crowds, according to Martinez. “You can tell by how much people are interested in your movie by how many stay for your Q&A,” says the actor, recalling White Girl’s world premiere. “The vast majority stayed.” Martinez adds that film will likely connect with audiences his co-stars’ ages and younger. “I think it will have a profound effect on young people who are trying to find themselves and are losing their minds.”
We partnered with TribecaFilm.com to cover Latino talent at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
White Girl is screening in Brooklyn during Rooftop Films on August 11, 2016 at 8 p.m. The director will be present for a Q&A followed by an after-party. Buy tickets here.