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View Date: October 9th, 2002

Rating: ($$$$ out of $$$$$)


Alison Lohman Astrid Magnussen
Michelle Pfeiffer Ingrid Magnussen
Robin Wright Penn Starr 
Cole Hauser Ray
Renée Zellweger Claire Richards
Noah Wyle Mark Richards
Svetlana Efremova Rena
Patrick Fugit Paul Trout
Amy Aquino Miss Martinez
Billy Connolly Barry Kolker
Kimo Wills Comic Book Clerk

Directed by:
Peter Kosminsky

Written by:
(novel) Janet Fitch 
(screenplay) Mary Agnes Donoghue 

Related Viewings:
Where the Heart Is (2000)
Basketball Diaries, The (1995)
Carrie (1976)

Official Sites:
White Oleander

Also see my reviews at:


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White Oleander

Needless to say, White Oleander will never be used as a promotional material for the foster care system.  First time director Peter Koziminsky has fashioned a tale of maternal love, encircled by the universal search for love and belonging.  The film  is anchored by amazing performances from Michelle Pfeiffer and Allison Lohman.  By deftly handling the screenplay, display and delivery, Koziminsky has given us a tale that is powerful, vengeful, brutally honest and effective in nearly aspect. The film has a panoramic view of the differing class structures, while telling a powerful story of the search for maternal love and social acceptance in the midst of the formulative years of a young girls life.  Films like Where The Heart Is attempted to tell similar tales of adolescent belonging and acceptance, but could not achieve the balance that Oleander does.  The film just seems real, the occurrences are painful truthful, while the revelations are hard to swallow and watch, but wholly believable.

As the film opens with a young girl, Astrid (Alison Lohman) is seen working on an artistic creation of some sort.  Through her narration, we learn that she is telling the story in retrospect because “the end doesn’t make sense until you see the beginning.”  We then meet Astrid’s mother Ingrid, a free-spirited artist who is raising Astrid on her own.  After a crime is commited, Ingrid is imprisoned and Astrid is cast into foster care hell.  Each one starts promisingly enough, the Bible thumping ex-stripper, the aspiring actress married to a successful workaholic screenwriter, the entrepreneurial Russian woman who lets anything go for the almighty dollar; each has their own appeal and benefits, but once settled in, things begin to show their true nature and colors.  Sandwiched in between are visits to her mother which begin friendly, with the mother preaching female empowerment and independence, then slowly but surely becoming more vindictive and vengeful as Ingrid feels her daughter slipping away from her grasps.  You can feel the balance of power shifting, through an uncomfortably devious confrontration between Zellwegger and Pfeiffer (with Michelle showing a chillingly subtle serpentine quality) finally culminating in a more mature, transformed Astrid finally standing up to her mother.  If I’ve told much, then you don’t see enough movies.  The true joy is not in the facts, but in the execution of these events.  Each foster home seems to represent a different perception of what people perceive as perfection.  Be it faith in God, social status or freedom to indulge, the story deftly explores each one, taking the universal approach that how things appear externally, may differ greatly than how they actually are.  Films like 13 Conversations and Full Frontal explored the search for happiness through various means, but this film takes one aspect and zooms painfully in on it.  The occurrences may seem manipulative or typical, existing to tug at heartstrings or play on emotions, but actually it has just the right tension.  It knows which strings to pull, when to pull them, and how hard to pull so as to get the desired effect while balancing the display of true and real emotion.

All the actresses put their best feet forward when on screen with each other.  The tension is syrupy thick, without all the sap of your usual chick flick, and Kazaminsky picked all the right buttons to push with his storytelling method.  The film is based on a novel by Janet Fitch, and from what I’ve learned, it is just the tip of the iceberg.  There were things that were explored further (such as other foster homes) and aspects of the story which were explained more (such as the connection with the flower).  From what I saw, what was included and told, the balance was perfect.  Koziminsky knew exactly what to tell and how to tell it to achieve his message.  For those who are interested, the flower known as White Oleander is an evergreen shrub reaching four meters in height. Leaves are 10 to 22 cm long, narrow, untoothed and short-stalked, dark or grey-green in color.  It occurs along watercourses, gravely places and damp ravines. It is widely cultivated particularly in warm temperate and subtropical regions where it grows outdoors in parks, gardens and along road sides.  The plant is very beautiful to look at, but toxic and fatal to ingest.  Once ingested or inhaled, it can slow the heartbeat down until it shuts down completely.  The plant thrives in heat and is not frost tolerant.  It is the perfect reflection of the relationship and actions of the film.  Pfeiffer’s character seems to thrive and react (either good or bad, depending on your perspective and opinion) when the heat is on her. 

Pfeiffer’s turn is one that on the surface may seem evil and conniving, but on closer examination and attention, is actually a myriad or maternal reactions and emotions.  It is said that mothers in the wild protect their young fiercely from all that they see as harmful.  In the film, Pfeiffer, who is imprisioned by similar protective acts, reacts with love, pain, venom, passion and a burning desire to be a good mother. Her scene with Zellwegger is so subtly brutal and harsh, that you barely notice Pfeiffer picking her apart like a lion feasting on her prey.  She is definitely more evil here than her intentionally over acted role in What Lies Beneath.  What makes her that way is the generally natural way that her motives seem to justify her actions, if only in her mind.  She doesn’t have to try to do this, and that’s what lends the role its power and intensity.  Lohman is truly the shining star and holds her own in her scenes with Pfeiffer, while carrying the moments when she’s the focus.  This is her first film, and ranks right up there with Norton’s Primal Fear and DiCaprio’s Gilbert Grape as strong screen debuts.  An Oscar nod would not be unheard of, but probably makes too much sense for the Academy voters.  Her roles requires her to be a literal and social chameleon, gliding through the physical, mental and emotional hurdles that life deals her.  This is truly a performance that deserves to be talked about for years to come.  Supporting the amazing performances of Pfeiffer and Lohman are a cast of characters whose screen time ranges from barely there (Billy Connolly as a philandering screenwriter) to nearly scene stealing (Almost Famous’s Patrick Fugit). These universally strong performances lay the groundwork for a truly stunning film.

Ultimately, White Oleander is a film that is not only an empowerment of maternal love, but a strong commentary on the search for, and definition of love.  People all have different ideas on what will make them happy, but usually the one constant is the love and support of at least one parent.  White Oleander explores the challenges that arise when that is brought into question via actions and reactions.  It is a much deeper and more complex film than some may expect, and like its namesake, is beautiful to look at, but painful to ingest and deal with at times.  But that is what makes it appealing.  It pulls no punches, bares its soul and cuts a swath through films that make everything appear sugary sweet and perfect.  Life is not perfect, it is the result of overcoming the imperfections and complications that the journey throws at us.  We may get lost, we may make mistakes, we may get knocked down, rebound and get knocked down again for similar reasons, but still we tread onward.  The hope and search for love becomes our guide.  White Oleander is a reflection of all of this, and a stunning debut for Koziminsky.  The combination of the performances along with the aforementioned screenplay, some symbolism which is never excessive but definitely intentional and relevant, and a score that is reflective of the mood, makes White Oleander the great film that it is. 

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