Like all Oprah-selected books, White Oleander is the story of a girl who has to overcome the most severe trauma and abuse. The book’s language was both vivid and lyrical, making the terrible events more epic than sordid. The movie tries to achieve the same standard, going for prestige drama over soap opera. But even the an exquisite performance by Michelle Pfeiffer and powerhouse appearances by Robin Wright Penn and newcomer Alison Lohman cannot keep the endless series of tragedies from melodrama.
Pfeiffer plays Ingrid, an artist who prides herself on her strength and independence. She murders her lover with poison from white oleander blossoms, and is sent to prison, leaving her daughter Astrid (Lohman) to a series of foster homes. First, she lives with Starr (Wright Penn), a former topless dancer who has found Jesus and is trying to hold on to her own rebellious daughter. Starr is kind to Astrid until she begins to see her as a rival for the attentions of her live-in boyfriend. Astrid protests that she has no designs on the boyfriend, but she cannot resist his attention and they become involved. Jealousy and insecurity cause Starr to begin drinking again and in a drunken rage she shoots Astrid.
Astrid’s other foster homes include Claire (Renée Zellweger), a weepy actress with a distant husband, and Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a money-hungry Russian who presides like Fagin over a ragtag group of orphans. In between, she stays at an institution, where she is beat up by tough girls but befriended by a sensitive boy named Paul (“Almost Famous” star Patrick Fugit).
Each setting provides Astrid with a new identity to try and a new opportunity to be hurt. Through it all, she visits her mother in prison, and it becomes clear that the woman who killed the man who tried to leave her would also do anything – and destroy anyone — to hold on to her daughter. Whenever Astrid seems happy or at home, Ingrid finds a way to poison her environment. Finally, Astrid is so determined not to allow herself to be vulnerable again that when she has a chance for a home with a kind, loving couple, she insists instead on going with Rena, where she is sure not to be disappointed again. She even turns away from Paul. Finally, though, she learns that even then she is reacting to Ingrid, and that to be fully her own person she must find her own way to intimacy and expression.
A Jungian analysis might suggest that the story is a metaphor for the inevitable separation in all mother-daughter relations. All of the mother figures, including not just Ingrid, Starr, Clare, and Rena but also the foster mother Astrid rejects and the social worker responsible for placing her are like one mother splintered into many extreme versions, as though reflected through a prism. All children find their mother to be many things, from the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving figure of their earliest memories to the extremely demanding and ultimately rejecting caricature she can appear to a teenager struggling to know herself.
Parents should know that the movie includes brutality of a modern-era Dickensian quality. Astrid is seduced by one foster parent and shot by another. A third commits suicide. Astrid is subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Ingrid murders her lover. There are non-explicit sexual situations and references. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs. Characters use strong language and mock religious faith.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Astrid changes her appearance and manner to reflect each of her “homes,” while Ingrid seems almost untouched by her surroundings.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the book. They may also like to see some other classic dramas of difficult mother/daughter relations, like “Terms of Endearment” and “One True Thing.”