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Powerful ‘White Girl’ serves as a cautionary tale about addiction

Leah (Morgan Saylor) falls for her dealer (Brian “Sene” Marc) in “White Girl.” | FILMRISE

Frequently difficult to watch, “White Girl” is the powerful feature debut of a filmmaker with original vision and clear talent — and a movie that proves a lead actress can possess the gift of transformative performance skills.

Based on writer-director Elizabeth Wood’s own life experiences, the film takes us on quite the journey — one that is a bit predictable, but delivered in such a way that it seems fresh and new.

Leah is portrayed by Morgan Saylor, best known for her memorable run as the unlikable Dana Brody on “Homeland.” It is the steamy summer before the upwardly mobile Leah is about to enter college in New York. She moves into a changing neighborhood in Queens that is attracting an influx of white college students — not especially welcomed with open arms by the majority Puerto Rican community. Initially that is the feeling of Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc) a cheeky and hip local drug dealer, who is as prejudiced about the so-called “rich kids” moving into his turf as the newcomers looking down on the Puerto Ricans who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

In a case of opposites attracting, Leah and Blue quickly connect romantically, sharing an addiction to cocaine and a love of hedonistic hard-partying. While Blue first looks at Leah as a route to a whole new, very lucrative market of customers among her friends, he soon falls in love with her — as she does with him. A big boost to Blue’s business comes when Leah connects him with her boss Kelly (Justin Bartha) and his posse of wealthy Manhattan finance world types.

Via Wood’s use of handheld camera technique — especially effective in the film’s earliest scenes — we are drawn into a dazzling and sometimes dizzying world of massive drug use, graphic sexual exploits and seemingly non-stop partying. But things then turn downhill when Blue is arrested on drug charges, leading Leah to launch into an increasingly desperate attempt to get him freed.

This is the point at which the film makes a sharp turn, as Leah goes to some pretty bizarre lengths to achieve her goal. Another familiar face from cable TV, “Sex in the City” star Chris Noth, is also featured playing the sleazy attorney Leah hires to help her solve Blue’s legal problems.

RELATED: University of Chicago student Morgan Saylor goes to dark places in ‘White Girl’

Special note must be made about Saylor’s performance in this film. She portrays Leah in a very raw and often unpleasant way. You don’t necessarily like her — let alone love her — but she exudes such determination in her quest to free Blue, you can’t help but respect her tenacity, while understanding her addiction to ‘white girl’ (the street name for cocaine) is driving much of this.

Saylor has created a character who will haunt you for some time after you leave the theater. She’s a young woman who proves that one or two very poor decisions can forever have an impact both on her life and Blue’s.

NOTE: Saylor will be present for audience discussions after the 8:30 p.m. Friday and 8:15 p.m. Saturday screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

★★★

FilmRise presents a film written and directed by Elizabeth Wood. Running time: 88 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.