United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger, Patrick Fugit
Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch
White Oleander is a flower - a hearty-but-poisonous flower whose beauty makes it appear deceptively fragile. This blossom, which appears several times throughout the film that takes its name, is a perfect metaphor for Ingrid Magnussen, the character played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Ingrid is strong, beautiful, and self-possessed, but she acts as a poison to everyone around her, especially her impressionable daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman), who idolizes her mother. Yet Ingrid acts based on her own whims and desires, without considering how they might ultimately damage the daughter she claims to love.
After an enraged and jealous Ingrid kills her lover, Barry (Billy Connolly), she is consigned to a maximum-security prison for a 30-to-life sentence. Astrid, who is a teenager, must go into care. Her first foster mother is Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a Bible-thumping Christian who is afraid Astrid is out to steal her man. After a close encounter with a bullet, Astrid ends up in McKinney Hall, where she meets a cartoonist named Paul (Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit), who is attracted to her. Astrid moves on to live with Claire (Renee Zellweger), an insecure B-movie actress who is convinced that her husband (Noah Wyle) is having an affair. Astrid and Claire bond, more likes sisters than a parent and a child. Through all of this, Ingrid lurks on the periphery, re-enforcing her indoctrination every time Astrid visits: "Loneliness is the human condition. Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you."
White Oleander is conventional, but well-made. The story, which doesn't offer many surprises as it follows a straightforward girl's coming-of-age formula, contains enough high points and interesting characters to keep some viewers involved. Director Peter Kosminsky draws his audience into the mindset of the protagonist, letting us see the world through Astrid's confused eyes. Toward the end, the movies slips into an awkward over-sentimentality that results in a forced sense of closure, but that's the only time when the narrative loses its direction.
You don't have to be a woman to appreciate White Oleander, but it probably helps, since there's a lot more going on in this film that has to do with estrogen than with testosterone. Nevertheless, the central theme, that of a child trying to escape from the pernicious influence of a misguided parent, has universal appeal, and White Oleander's narrative is comfortably linear and uncomplicated. It's not edgy or groundbreaking, but it tells the story it sets out to tell. For what it is, Kosminsky's picture is polished and effective. If only the movie had taken more risks or possessed a keener edge...