Based on Janet Fitch’s novel, White Oleander is the story of Astrid’s relationship with her mother, and with several mother substitutes she is stuck with in the foster care system after her mother’s imprisonment. For fans of the book, the movie is a nice, quick recap of the major events. For folks who have not read the book, as with any film adaptation, some of the events seem quick and haphazard, when in actuality they are far more involved and affecting to the characters. (To clear up one item that those who have not read it might make assumptions about, Ray is not really remotely that creepy.)
Alison Lohman’s performance as Astrid is very layered and nuanced for her age, and despite a distractingly terrible dye job to make her blonde for the role, she is perfectly balanced between innocent and wise, battered and strong. Her brown eyes glow under the cool waves of power emanating from her mother’s blue ones. Brown eyes may be a dominant gene, but in this family, having such warmth in one’s eyes is clearly recessive, a weakness. Perhaps it is that inner warmth that enables Astrid to make it through the emotional prisons within physical prisons she is confronted with.
Never has Michelle Pfeiffer been more perfectly cast. Lyrically beautiful, aloof and cold, yet emotionally intense, craftily wise and gracefully strong, she embodies the character of Ingrid, Astrid’s mother. Her ice blue Nordic eyes burn like those of a caged panther, steely with passion. While Lohman is ostensibly the star of the film, Pfeiffer (as does her character) saps Astrid off the screen with her icy smolder.
Supporting Alison and Michelle are Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger. Both these characters, like Astrid and her mother are beautiful blondes, but flawed in some way that makes Astrid and Ingrid somehow more exotic, more rare, more zoologically different. Robin and Renee are also perfect for their respective roles (I mean that as a compliment). Robin plays Starr, Astrid’s first and most outwardly complex foster mother, and Renee plays Claire, perhaps the most inwardly complex. I was hiding my eyes like it was a horror movie when Claire and Ingrid meet. Fantastic performances.
Sadly, we are left to our own devices with Patrick Fugit’s character Paul, whom she meets in the foster group home, and with Ray, Starr’s boyfriend. The filmmakers definitely focus keenly on the womens’ relationships here and let us make our own stories for the men, which mars the film somewhat. Even Starr’s son Davey is short-changed in his impact on Astrid’s life, and for that the film suffers. Thomas Newman’s music echoes in work in American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but while it is the same, it works just as well.
Thankfully, though, director Peter Kosminsky and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches) do not betray the pain, the work that Astrid has to do to find her place, and no one magically rescues her either. Despite her setbacks, the movie does not pause to let us or make us feel pity, or even empathy; we skip along the milestones breezily. We watch Astrid grow in every reel so her final destination (in the film) feels right. The film itself would be only Rental & Snacks, were it not for Michelle Pfeiffers amazing performance. Chilling.
MPAA Rating PG_13
Release date 10/11/02
Time in minutes 109
Director Peter Kosminsky
Studio Warner Brothers