By Madeleine Wall
After 2019’s summer of scammers, from the fall of Elizabeth Holmes to the false starts of Caroline Calloway, the cold industrial winter of Hamilton feels particularly harsh. The glossy cautionary fables of the warmer months are long gone, and instead we have something on a smaller scale, a tale of the banality of privilege. As the grey morning light leaks into her basement apartment, Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl) goes through her morning routine. That our protagonist is a scammer isn’t a spoiler: Katie’s self-care routine involves shaving her head so she looks enough like a chemo patient to pass as one. Instead, directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis make White Lie less about the character of Katie as liar than the mechanisms through which she’s able to do so, how easy it is to build a tower of cards and how easy it is to have it collapse right in front of you.
Like any good online influencer, Katie picks the signifiers for audience sympathy judiciously. She keeps her eyebrows and eyelashes full so that she appears more like the chemo patients of film and television than the ones in real life; she keeps her bald head exposed in below-freezing temperatures. She “doesn’t eat,” but being just emaciated enough attracts the right kind of attention, as she acquires a wealthy and ever-supportive girlfriend, Jennifer (Amber Anderson), and becomes a literal poster child for an ambiguous charity campaign. Though vanity certainly plays a part in her presentation, there’s also cunning: she knows that there is a degree of illness which people will still steer clear of. As packaged, Katie can count on the support of her classmates and school administration, is the star of an inspirational dance recital, and receives envelopes of money at regular intervals. She has successfully created an image for herself, and between online fundraisers and selective selfie filters, she’s able to slide by with people taking her at her word. Things are good, but they can only last for so long. In order to continue her profitable ruse, she’s asked to provide medical records that don’t exist, and notes from doctors she’s never visited.
Though money is the turning point for Katie’s undoing, it’s clear it isn’t the sole motivating factor for her crimes. Were she truly ill, her treatment would be covered by OHIP, but the amount of money she has stolen by the end of the film is estimated at around $20,000 (where it’s gone and why is one of several expositional mysteries the filmmakers smartly maintain). Her scam is closer to Munchausen syndrome, in that she’s created a narrative that doesn’t hold together when confronted with even the smallest facts. Rohl plays Katie as always sliding between different levels of vulnerability: the one of the pitiable patient, and the one of an animal trapped in the corner. She’s a woman so used to being treated as helpless that she’s no longer able to see when she’s no longer the prey.
During a visit to her estranged father (Martin Donovan) for money to get falsified medical records, Katie is explicitly accused of lying about having cancer—the first such call-out in the movie. Rather than being drawn in by Katie’s pleas, Dad treats her with a wary distance, asking questions that she can’t answer. Thrown off, Katie reveals more than she means to, the accidental exegesis of a protagonist not quite in control of the situation. She lashes out at her father when he tells her she’s sick in a way that he can’t help; he’s immune to her outcries. She’s done this before, we learn, in high school after her mother died. She can curate and delete her past online, but face to face, she’s not able to be so precise.
In terms of pace and tone, White Lie feels like a thriller, focusing closely on process and contingency. Katie’s local fixer Owen (Connor Jessup) hooks her up with a young medical resident, Jabari (Thomas Olajide), who’s willing to forge some records in exchange for cash; his mother is sick, though Owen is vague on the details compelling the young doctor to risk his career. (“I don’t know, she’s expensive.”) When Jabari comes through, Katie’s online image becomes consolidated into documents, a shift from the digital to the physical. In black and white, we find out how bad she is at lying. Her chemo schedule makes no sense; she was never asked to come up with any specifics, so she has none. No one wants to challenge her, and she’s been able to skirt by, the privilege of implicit trust. When Jabari disappears before giving her the documents, she screams at him on the phone, telling him she hopes his sick mother dies—a loss she has herself experienced. There’s nothing more important to her than this, no life more important than the image she has created.
The tension in White Lie comes from the threat of Katie’s exposure, an anxiety accentuated by Lev Lewis’ snaky musical score. There’s no moment in the film where we’re not by Katie’s side, and the majority of her interactions with people are primarily one-on-one. The paralleling of the viewer’s relationship with her to her interactions with the people she needs things from becomes a gradual shift from sympathy to claustrophobia. We’re all trapped with Katie and can only watch her bury herself deeper. The mid-film scene where she receives a Facebook notification while at dinner with Jennifer’s parents touches on a palpable digital dread; as the people who’ve supported her turn their backs on her one click at a time, it’s apparent that no authentic connection was ever made in the first place. During another confrontation with Jennifer, Katie explains that people “look at [me] and stare and avoid [me],” explicitly verbalizing how she’s been given the benefit of all doubts. The subtext is clear: people would rather placate themselves via a fundraising pledge than do any real work. As Katie’s luck runs out, she’s still able to get the support she needs. She reaches out to a friend’s mother, Colette (Sharon Lewis), for legal advice, and in turn reveals that she’s been lying—an admission that pairs with her earlier encounter with Jabari in that the only characters who offer significant pushback against her plans are people of colour. It also pairs with the scene between Katie and her father, a child turning to a parent figure for absolution and being denied. But while Katie is finally forced via Colette’s reaction to see the ramifications of her actions, any true reckoning remains delayed. Despite her misgivings, Colette acts professionally and offers Katie a connection with another resourceful lawyer; Jennifer is quickly seduced back to Katie’s side; Owen locates a doctor who will, at great cost, actually make Katie sick enough to continue her charade. The body betrays us all, but in Katie’s case, it is only the threat of her healthy body being exposed that matters. As the film ends, she is able to maintain her white lie for now, which says as much about her as it does about everyone else.
Originally published in Cinema Scope 81.