Wednesday 14 April 2021

Movie Review: White Oleander (2002)

A mother-daughter drama, White Oleander is full of spiky surprises, excellent performances, and heartache.

In New York, budding artist Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman) recalls her childhood in flashback. She never knew her father, and was raised in California by her fiercely independent mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a somewhat famous visual artist. Astrid is just 15 years old when Ingrid is arrested and convicted for the murder of her lover. 

Astrid becomes a ward of the state and lives in foster homes with stints at the McKinney Children's Centre. Her character is shaped by foster mothers including Jesus-loving former stripper Starr (Robin Wright), fading actress Claire (Renée Zellweger), and Russian thrift market hustler Rena. Throughout, Astrid keeps visiting Ingrid in prison, and gradually starts to understand the level of control and manipulation her mother is capable of.

An adaptation of the Janet Fitch book, White Oleander weaves an impressive tapestry of complex human interactions. The screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue does at times strike the episodic tones of book chapters, but director Peter Kosminsky charts a course towards a cohesive narrative packed with the painful but also realistic travails of an adolescent dangerously close to falling through the cracks.

The film's strength is derived from the gradual unveiling of Ingrid's core, and the corresponding impact on Astrid. Ingrid starts as a role model for the liberated and successful single mom raising her daughter to be just as strong. Her arrest for murder arrives early and is just the first of many shocks to rock Astrid's life. Subsequently, and despite the prison walls separating them, Ingrid's remarkable character traits are exposed through the eyes of her daughter. Astrid develops a distaste towards the dark side of individualism and starts to question, rather than simply accept, her mother's uncompromising and self-centred actions. Eventually, themes of loneliness, betrayal, narcissism, and despondency merge into a complex definition of a woman determined to confront the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile Astrid evolves under the influence of foster mothers. She discovers the power of her own sexuality, and in Starr and Claire finds common traits of superficial domesticity obscuring churning dissatisfaction. Love lost or sought is always part of the fuel mix driving the mothers' behaviour, and the exceptional power of love to cause hurt and initiate healing emerges as an overarching arc.

With men a sideshow, the women-dominated cast is excellent with two stand-out performances. From her prison courtyard Michelle Pfeiffer radiates chilling levels of emotional domination and an immense capacity to scorch the earth around her daughter's life. And in her breakthrough role Alison Lohman is a revelation, navigating Astrid's frequently tragic journey with convincing transitions towards adulthood and assertiveness. Robin Wright and Renée Zellweger provide memorable support, but their different-but-the-same foster mothers are more predictable.

Emotive without descending into sentimentality, White Oleander seeks the tenacious pursuit of individual growth despite life's lurking poisons.

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