White Oleander is imperfect: the script has some distracting flaws that take you out of the action. Yet it may also be one of the best studio films of the year. It has outstanding performances, a heartwrenching story, and a satisfying ending.
Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a visual artist. She’s a bit of a flake, but she is loving and strong. She tries very hard to mold her daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman). Important lessons about life and art find their way into everyday conversations. Both mother and daughter try to connect during these learning moments, but if Astrid learns anything, it is only how to please her mother.
Ingrid is convicted of murder — a development most movies would spend a lot of screen time on. In this one, brief flashbacks are enough to suggest why Ingrid killed her ex-boyfriend, leaving the bulk of the story to focus on Ingrid and Astrid.
Astrid is placed in a series of foster homes. Each foster placement is as unique as the mothers that preside over them. Foster mother Starr (Robin Wright Penn) is a Jesus freak living one step above ahead of poverty; Clare (Renee Zellweger) is an kindly actress married to a TV producer; and Rena (Svetlana Efremova) is a crooked Russian emigrant.
Ingrid is jealous of anyone else who tries to raise Astrid. During Astrid’s regular visits to the prison, Ingrid encourages her to rebel against her foster parents. She is even so bold as to invite Clare to visit so that she can try to intimidate her into leaving her husband. Ingrid is supposedly acting in Astrid’s best interest, but she is blind to her own jealousy and its effect on those best interests.
The visits between mother and daughter become increasingly abrasive until Astrid — realizing she has some power in this relationship — threatens to walk away from her mother forever. Ingrid’s only hope against losing her is to confess what she was never going to tell; to bring her greatest shame out into the light and hope Astrid can understand and forgive.
Just Add Water
The narrator, a slightly-older Astrid, is distracting because she is too articulate. She tells us things that a screwed-up teenager wouldn’t know how to put into words. Luckily, the narration goes away during the action of the film, but it takes away from the beginning and end. Aside from that, Astrid is well played and well written.
Astrid is a sponge that soaks up the hairstyles, clothing, and philosophies of her foster families. But Astrid doesn’t just change, she also grows. She starts to become her own person, and Lohman is able to add depth and solidity as the movie progresses.
Her performance is helped by Elliot Davis’s intimate handheld cinematography, which repeatedly puts us in Astrid’s shoes. For example, when she enters her first foster home, the camera follows her, hanging just back and above her shoulder. Every knicknack is odd, every room is tiny and messy, and we, with Astrid, take it all in at once. Because we were this intimately familiar with her previous life, we see just how different the new life is. We see — and understand — just how frightened, helpless and alone Astrid must be.
Pfeiffer’s performance is very good, even though her character is a little overwritten. Her big Oscar-begging at the end (not unlike Robert De Niro’s final scene in City by the Sea) stands out because it is excellent. But the fact that it stands out indicates an unevenness in the film. There is too wide a gap between what Pfeiffer is capable of and what was written for her.
One critic who disliked White Oleander jokingly compared Ingrid to another famous prisoner, Hannibal Lecter. Ingrid tells Astrid “Prison agrees with me. There’s no hypocrisy here. Kill or be killed.” Later she offers this motherly advice from prison: “Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you.” Indeed, Ingrid is overwritten. There are overbearing mothers, and Ingrid outdoes them all.
A Major Chord
Even so, the dynamic between mother and daughter is the best thing about White Oleander. Ingrid sees her daughter slipping away and changing as she moves from home to home. She realizes that her own effect on Astrid may have been fleeting. The pressure she puts on Astrid in response is desperate, and it rings true.
There is love between them, but it’s hidden deep. It is hard to find through all the control, manipulation, resentment and rebellion. One hopes the film will find a major chord of hope in this minor-key composition, but with two such strong-willed women, that may be too much to ask.