White Lie opens with protagonist Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl, “Red Riding Hood”) shaving her head. Combined with the title, this opening scene may well prompt the viewer to form an initial interpretation. While this first impression may be proved right, the film subsequently goes in several unexpected directions, probing deep and prompting unexpected reactions.
Katie is a university student raising money through events and social media related to her cancer. After the initial head-shaving, we see her making her way to campus, meeting her friends and rehearsing for a dance recital. This opening sequence is a masterful piece of visual storytelling, as writer-directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas construct the environment of the film, Katie as well as other characters, almost entirely without dialogue. Cinematographer Christopher Lew lenses the Ontario locations in chilly and stark colors, with deep focus shots of dilapidated buildings, bridges and elevated train tracks constructing a sense of entrapment that is furthered by editor/composer Lev Lewis’ smart cutting on the notes of the ominous, but never overbearing, score. As the film progresses, the sense of enclosure becomes ever stronger, as the camera pushes in towards Katie. This technique means, whether Katie is outdoors or indoors, in a two-shot with girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson, “Your Highness”) or alone in a room, the camera creeps towards her in a manner that shrinks the frame, suggesting threatening and Katie’s increasing fear and desperation. During one tense conversation, the frame is partially occupied by a large mirror, Katie in the foreground but the shallow focus blurring the mirror. This reflective void expresses the confrontation that Katie is making with those around her and with herself, both of them equally frightening.
Katie’s fear is a product of her own actions, because that initial expectation about cancer and a “White Lie” is proved correct — Katie does not have cancer. The dance recital, crowdfunder, magazine articles that we see arrayed round her are all in the service of her elaborate and sustained deception, the extent of which is impressive as demonstrated in conversations that she has with Jennifer, her father Doug (Martin Donovan, “Tenet”) as well as university and medical administrators. The history of her diagnosis, symptoms and treatment are all meticulously researched and delivered with a conviction that would make any undercover agent proud. When further evidence is needed to sustain her ruse, she performs additional manipulation to get the money she claims is for medication and further treatment.
On the one hand, it is impressive to see Katie’s skill at developing her fiction. On the other hand, the viewer may roundly condemn the protagonist for her blatant preying upon people’s sympathies not to mention the financial fraud that she is committing. Conversations with doctors and lawyers reveal the wider ramifications of her actions, creating further expense and risk as suspicion grows. The score escalates both in tempo and volume, and conversations with officials raise the stakes still higher, culminating with one of the tensest photocopying sequences ever seen on film. Mobile phones are also used to great effect: The device is common enough to be part of the scenery and can provide something of a deus ex machina, but in White Lie, the cell phone is a lifeline, a tool and even a threat, as Katie receives texts and calls that she lies about, social media notifications that induce panic, other alerts that offer relief, and the policing of online shaming and bullying makes a timely but not heavy-handed appearance.
Throughout the increasingly fraught events, Rohl performs a remarkable balancing act, using subtle shifts in expression to express both her fear of exposure and adherence to her story. Her performance is central to maintaining audience sympathy — despite her actions, the film never condemns Katie but presents her as a figure threatened and frightened but determined to continue. Maybe we want her to succeed; maybe we want her to be found out; maybe we want her to find a way out of this mess she has created for herself; would the ultimate irony be that she actually develops cancer? Katie is certainly manipulative, but not vindictive or cruel. The only times she becomes angry are when people who know the truth deny her what she seeks.
Perhaps most importantly, the film does not dwell on WHY Katie is doing all this. The amount of effort, discipline and self-inflicted suffering, not to mention expense, that she goes through and incurs is geared towards her elaborate deception, but is it all for money? She pursues a specific financial aid through her university that requires particular documents, but this seems more of a McGuffin than anything else. Perhaps her project is to maintain a sense of control, Katie’s strained relationship with her father suggests that she is determined to make things happen her way. There’s may also be a political comment on university tuition fees: That one way to pay for college is through dishonesty and deception. Ultimately, Katie’s reason is not explored in White Lie because it is not the point. The film’s emphasis is on the psychological (and to a lesser extent, physical) strain and commitment to her project, inviting the audience to consider how to deal with such a situation. The ending is pleasantly ambiguous, showing both an ongoing commitment, and also the cost. It is noticeable that the cost seems inevitable, as either the truth will out, or even if not, the scaffolding of deception dictates a very heavy price.