Tension in cinema is so often associated with hidden bombs and daring escapes. White Lie, the fourth feature from co-directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, transcends genre conventions, resulting in one of the tensest and most thrilling dramas of the year.
In tone, White Lies bears an interesting resemblance to the anxiety cinema of the Safdie Brothers, getting increasingly more stressful as events proceed, encouraging a physical reaction of anxiety from the audience. Katie Arneson (a brilliant Kacey Rohl) is a young student who is faking cancer. As the people around her start to have their doubts, Katie is forced to crawl deeper into her lie as the pressure mounts, putting her relationships with those she loves in danger.
The writer/director pair haven’t picked an easy topic here, there’s little to immediately make the audience sympathetic to Katie. However, as the film progresses and the stress mounts, you find yourself hoping there is someway out for her. Katie isn’t an antihero, just a young woman in over her head in a quest for attention and support. Why Katie has chosen to act like this is never fully answered by the film, although it is briefly explored. The film expects you to put these usual questions of motivation aside; there are no easy answers here, nor should there be. The questions White Lie leaves you with allow the unnerving subject matter of the film to stick with you days later. The sudden and rather wonderfully unsatisfying ending is one of the best closing scenes in the last few years.
Lewis and Thomas show great command of the camera throughout the film, with great uses of long slow push ins to build tension and framing to demonstrate Katie’s isolation. The dialogue, however, can feel functional at times. This issue is often paired with scenes that are held a moment too long, slowing the pace of the film and even alleviating some of the steadily building tension. Fortunately, the performances are terrific throughout the film, even when the dialogue is having a weaker moment. Amber Anderson (Emma) as Jennifer, Katie’s heartbreakingly supportive girlfriend, and Tenet’s Martin Donovan as Katie’s father, the sympathetic antagonist of the film, are both terrific. Kacey Rohl is the standout, with some breath-taking moments of performance as Katie slowly sees her world start to unravel. Rohl brilliantly portrays that person caught in a lie so deep that they start to believe it themselves.
Despite some surface level problems, White Lie succeeds in evoking the emotions needed to make it a gripping and unnerving drama-thriller. Lewis and Thomas show great understanding of the craft and show tremendous promise for their future.