White Oleander (2002) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for drug content, language, sexuality, and violence
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Billy Connolly, Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle, Taryn Manning
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Screenplay: Mary Agnes Donoghue (from the book by Janet Fitch)
Review published October 17, 2002
Based on Janet Fitch's best selling novel of the same name, White Oleander plays more like a four part drama on life-lessons than as a cohesive, conventional thriller. With such a uniquely constructed narrative, it becomes more of a character piece, and is refreshingly different in its own right from many of the revenge thrillers for women to date. The title refers to a flower that is beautiful to look at, small and fragile, but is deadly poisonous to all that try to consume it. As the flower is, so are the ladies of this film, a nice metaphor from which to surround the main theme of death and possession.
Although it sports a solid cast, White Oleander's main star is Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men, Big Fish), a relative unknown, playing the teenage girl, Astrid. Her mother Ingrid (Pfeiffer, I Am Sam) is a quasi-hippie poet who instills in Astrid a sense of independence from others, although constantly trying to influence her herself. Ingrid falls in love with another man, but is heart-broken when he decides to date other women. The man is later found dead and Ingrid is accused and sentenced to 35-to-life in prison, sending Alison to a life of foster homes. Outside of the direct influence of her mother, she begins to adapt to the lives of others, some opportunists, some victims, but all chaotic in the life of the young girl, and none of whom meet mom's approval. Ingrid preaches using her beauty for survival and freedom, but the hypocrisy is evident when not allowing her own daughter to survive and be free from her own mother.
White Oleander is very much a woman's film, but that's not to say it won't appeal to men. This just means that the themes of beauty and how to use it will be much more resonant and readily understood if you happen to be female. That said, this type of film is not much seen outside of the Lifetime channel, so it does make for refreshing fare when given the big screen treatment. Solid actresses fill the film, and colorful characters keeps the situations engaging, even if the eccentricities send the film into an unrealistic realm of fiction. However, unlike many so-called chick flicks that have come before, the feminist bent is much stronger, repudiating the need and reliance on men, and reversing the usual mushy, tearjerker core and filling it with ice cold defiance.
Not everyone will be in tune with the less-than-concrete plotting, and somewhat subdued symbolic structure to understand what the movie is all about, although even taken on face value, there is a ease in watching the characters interact. Like life, the structure isn't straight-forward and the solutions aren't always pat, making White Oleander a surprisingly complex film for those who like to pick out the deconstruction of female archetypes. It's a pessimistic, dark, and somewhat mean film, but does ultimately deliver a message that even amid the most abhorrent of conditions, a flower can bloom.
©2002 Vince Leo