Directors: Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas
Writers: Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas
Stars: Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan
The quintessential dilemma that permeates through White Lie, the question that lives in the mind of every viewer, is seemingly the question of, “what would *I* do?” Were we tasked with the same positioning, forced to embody the circumstances of the film’s protagonist (or in most instances, ‘antagonist’ may be the more appropriate term), “what would *we* do?” It is in this question that White Lie succeeds, stringing us effortlessly along for the duration of its runtime in a tense, tightly wound thriller that forces us to empathize with its least empathetic character.
White Lie begins with the decision already made for us. Katie, played with a brilliant, dissociative ease by Kacey Rohl, is a college student in the prime of her life. She slides the clean edge of a razor against her smooth head and waltzes through the halls of her school, modestly claiming notoriety and recognition from the surrounding student body. But what becomes abundantly clear in these first stringing moments is that Katie is in the midst of a lie. A vague but debilitating diagnosis of cancer has rendered her the most sympathetic personality in the local area, and consequently it has also made her the biggest fraud. Katie does not have cancer. And as we meet the different strokes of supportive peers surrounding her, we realize just how deeply this lie has burrowed in her modern life.
For the next 90 minutes, Katie comes face to face with the crippling anxiety of a villain desperate to tread water. And as an audience, we are forced to bare witness as she struggles to maintain her status amidst a seemingly endless array of setbacks. But it’s not the central character that makes the film so palpably engaging, but rather the surrounding support system she has built to help her through the endless struggles of her counterfeit battle. Most notable among them is Katie’s girlfriend Jennifer, a balanced and stable force in her life who is unknowingly woven into the thick scheme as she innocently attempts to promote and create fundraisers to help her partner. The moral dilemma permeating through the story lies in the relationship between Katie and Jennifer, seeing how deep our central figure is willing to distort her own reality to keep the lie afloat and how much it may chip away at her emotional core. Such is the brilliance of the delicate scripting by the directing/writing duo Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Whereas other stories may give a classic ‘Clyde’ a ‘Bonnie’ to encourage a more universal, relatable look, White Lie wisely limits our approval of Katie and lets us see Jennifer as the truly compassionate reflection, an antithesis of our proposed ‘hero’. She is the North Star that Katie rushes to chase in an effort for her own internal distortion to meet with Jennifer in a thoughtful place of love and truth. We don’t see Katie as someone aspiring to be better. Instead we see her aim to mask herself long enough to simply be okay, to eventually earn the moral right to deserve someone so kind. And in some subliminal way, it encourages our own distortion of reality, rooting, against our ethical wishes, for the inherent evil that Katie forcibly asserts.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take an opportunity to highlight the film’s score, a haunting essence that looms over the runtime with effortless escalation to the tension. Composer Lev Lewis crafts a sympathetic and somber underscore that often uproots itself with a boisterous instrument that echoes entirely out of place to distort the moment, a brilliant reminder of our own complacency in Katie’s story as well as a clear and effective way to heighten the suspense with an anxiety inducing instrumental. It’s a remarkable composition, one that vibrantly settles into the bones of the film and adds to the escalating momentum even in scenes that casually feather us closer to the finish line.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Kacey Rohl emerging as the clear showstopper with an execution that neither judges her character’s questionable choices nor absolves them of their appropriate guilt. But the film’s secret weapon lies in Martin Donovan’s capable hands as Katie’s father. It’s a pivotal role regardless of its limited screen time, and in the deft control of such an esteemed actor as Donovan, it exudes more than the clear counterforce to Katie’s plight. Donovan allows the compassion to burden the weight of his forcefulness, creating a fully dimensional exploration of the familial dynamic that has long estranged Katie and her father.
Unfortunately, the film can’t find more excuses to instigate Donovan in the plot. And the pivotal narrative choice made by his character in the back half of the film which sets in motion the bulk of the remaining 45 minutes feels half-baked and largely convenient. Without delving too deep into spoilers, Katie’s central plot faces a dynamic shift towards the core of the second act that is largely brought about by her father. Katie is often put against insurmountable odds, and to watch her combat them with efficiency makes her such a compelling focal point. But this only adds to the disappointment of seeing her nearly upended by mere hearsay. What adds to that disappointment is the large communal shift of the supporting players surrounding Katie. It adds to her own paranoia, but it offers very little to the audience in terms of establishing context for why people would be so eager to switch their allegiance from Katie who was previously established as such a sympathetic idol. It’s a frustrating turn for such a naturally compelling narrative, and it forces us to scoff at Katie’s inability to establish a comprehensive game plan. An incredibly well crafted scene between Katie and her friend’s mom suddenly sets the tone for Katie’s endless downward spiral. The key to the film is Katie’s ability to outsmart her oppressors. And when she suddenly throws caution to the wind and makes careless errors, it doesn’t make her more relatable. It makes her more divisive.
But White Lie deserves commendation in its final moments. The delicate tightroping has its necessary fallout while also accommodating several surprising rebalancing efforts to keep things interesting. And as the credits roll, the audience is forced to sit with themselves as they lament their own human nature, disgusted in their individual acceptance of Katie’s story while also feeling the glints of sympathy derived from a woman who has made a calculated choice in who to finally trust only to see that decision in its haunting reality. The revelation crosses the face of the one she confides in as Katie saunters into the next phase of her seemingly endless plan. It’s an ending that hammers home the themes of isolation derived from pain, and the constant desperation to endure perceived hardship to satisfy an all consuming ego. The film never fully explains Katie’s choice in creating the lie, wisely realizing that it doesn’t need to and that often the deepest explorations into the human psyche require multiple choice. For that, the conversation surrounding White Lie is made all the more interesting.
While the direction is understated, often echoing the works of Cianfrance in its quiet demeanor, Lewis and Thomas add a lot of personality into the anxiety induced by the camera. The way the shots often linger on Katie’s boiling frustration, locking down her pacing with stewing medium closeups as she struggles to maintain stability, adds to the internal dilemma of the audience. The aforementioned question: “What would I do?” It gives us pause. Because at first glance, you may say to yourself that you would never consider something so dastardly. But the longer the film presses on, the more you attempt to rationalize. Until we ultimately feel culpable. The White Lie passes on to us. And in that aim, this is a film that undoubtedly succeeds. Catch it on Amazon Prime for a rental price that is well worth its cost. 8.8/10