India Menuez and Morgan Saylor at the New York premiere of "White Girl" on August 22, 2016.
India Menuez and Morgan Saylor at the New York premiere of "White Girl" on August 22, 2016.
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

If the film’s title is any indication, “White Girl” does not shy from provocation. But while its various explicit scenes, including the film’s star and titular white girl, Morgan Saylor, snorting cocaine off a certain area of her boss, may have caused viewers to walk out of its screening at Sundance, in New York, they landed a welcome reception: Monday night's premiere ended with a heartfelt round of applause. It was somewhat of a homecoming for director Elizabeth Wood: “It’s actually my fifteenth anniversary moving to New York today, and I think I came to a movie here on, like, my second day, so that’s cool,” she said, gesturing around to the Angelika Theater.

But much more of the film is personal. For her first full-length feature, Wood looked to her own life for inspiration, even filming on the same block where she once lived in Ridgewood, Queens. Like Leah, played by Saylor, Wood went to the New School and moved far down the M train in search of cheaper rent, falling in with a whole new crowd in the process. In the case of Leah, that starts with a jaunt to the drug dealer to remedy her shortage of weed, prompting a summer of debauchery and, ultimately, destruction.

You might think you know where this story is going, but it’s Leah, not the Ridgewood crowd, who ends up the villain (though she encounters her fair share of evil as well). Blue, the group’s soft-spoken kingpin, is “the one decent guy in the film,” as actor Brian Marc described him – helplessly in love with Leah, and just trying to pay off his grandmother’s medical bills. “He challenges stereotypes so I was happy to play him because I know that people see me through a stereotype,” said Marc, a first-time actor who, like Blue, is Puerto Rican and from New York.

Leah, on the other hand, is a stereotype in full: She’s a gentrifier with a liberal arts degree, working as an unpaid intern at a magazine, living by the privileged credo that she "always figures it out." “She feels entitled to take a lot from the city and to explore all the adventures,” Saylor explained. And Wood embraced the filming process as enthusiastically as Leah threw herself into the mess: “I always wanted to go further and further and further,” Wood said. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as too far because you can always edit it out.”

The cast seemed to agree. “You kind of sign up for that going into it,” said Annabelle Dexter-Jones, who plays one of Leah’s coworkers. “It was full-on, definitely,” echoed India Menuez, whose role as Leah’s best friend had her doing her first-ever sex scenes. Though Menuez hesitated at first, she soon adjusted: “I thought it was true to the story and the way that Elizabeth envisioned it was more empowering,” she said.

For Saylor and Marc, the difficulties seemed to fall only within the technicalities – snorting line after line after line of vitamin B12, or filming sweaty outdoor sex scenes when it was actually rainy January, not summer. And while those “really gnarly” scenes might steal the show, Saylor hopes reactions will go past that “easy read” of writing it all off as shock value: “It’s about much bigger themes – gender, race, and gentrification,” she said. “I think it’s important that people take note of that, more so than the sexual explicit nature of the film.”

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