WHITE OLEANDER is about fifteen year old Astrid who witnesses her mother. Played by Michelle Pfeiffer, murdering an unfaithful boyfriend. With her mother incarcerated, Astrid is shuffled through a series of foster homes and juvenile centers in Los Angeles county. The whole time her mother’s heavy and controlling hand haunts her. Each foster care situation leaves a unique mark on Astrid as she grows from a girl into a woman in a few short years. She learns to be able to receive the better things from her circumstances and to reject the worse. This eventually helps her to break away from her mother’s negative influence and control to become her own person.
WHITE OLEANDER is a complex, sad, psychological drama. It basically says that everyone comes from some level of dysfunctional family (which, of course, is not true). References to suicide, murder, violence, adultery, under-age fornication, alcoholism, and anti-Christian bigotry, mar the movie. Although those who know better might question the validity of poor Starr’s salvation due to the presentation of her poor witness, many of the movie’s viewers may be deterred from seriously considering Christianity. The final answer is humanist and empty.
(H, AbAb, B, C, FM, L, VV, SS, N, A, D, M) Humanist, anti-Christian worldview where mom says Christians are the enemy, that girl should think for herself, girl points out that mom is a murderer and just as controlling, little boy says it is better to know than to believe, girl responds that knowing her mom was killing a man didn’t make her do the right thing by stopping or reporting the incident, religious characters shown with their many faults and shown as hypocritical, references to Jesus as Savior, girl is baptized, one of foster mothers is a Russian immigrant that picks trash in rich Los Angeles neighborhoods and sells it at flea markets tells girl that sentimentality over old clothing is bad, while making money is good; 7 obscenities and no profanity; girl is shot in shoulder by jealous foster mom, woman commits suicide with pills and alcohol after foster girl’s real mom convinces her it’s the best thing, brief scuffle shown in state teen group home, girl threatens attacker by sneaking into her room at night, putting a knife to her neck and telling her if she ever gets jumped by her or her friends again she’ll cut their throats while they sleep, verbal threats of bodily harm, verbal cruelty, and mental manipulation; it is implied that teen girl and her foster father have sex twice (statutory rape in most states) but nothing is ever shown except their obvious attraction to each other, foster mom and live in boyfriend are fornicating in bedroom next to the girl’s room, hear moaning and the headboard banging against the wall; a few non-sensual scenes of women in underwear, woman in thong panties – clinically presented; alcoholic character, alcohol in party atmosphere, and empty wine bottle seen after woman drowns her sorrows; smoking; and, jealousy.
WHITE OLEANDER is a movie based upon one of Oprah Winfrey’s book club picks. It is about a fifteen year old girl named Astrid (Alison Lohman) who witnesses her mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) murdering her own unfaithful boyfriend. He was poisoned with a flower from her mother’s garden called white oleander. Her mother is arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for 35 years to life.
Astrid is shuffled through a series of foster homes and juvenile centers in Los Angeles county. The whole time her mother’s heavy and controlling hand haunts Astrid. Ingrid writes her daughter from prison saying, “We are both in prison being punished for our strength and independence. Remember every insult, every tear.”
Each foster care situation Astrid experiences leaves its own unique mark on her as she grows from a girl into a woman in a few short years.. Astrid seems to learn to be able to receive the better things from her circumstances and to reject the worse. This eventually helps her to break away from her mother’s negative influence and control as she grows. The different homes Astrid moves into never seems beyond her mother’s reach. Ingrid does all she can to destroy any good that can possibly come to her daughter from them. Ingrid tells her that she’d rather see her daughter in the worst of foster care situations than to pine away with one of her more insecure hosts. “Love humiliates you,” says Ingrid, “Hate cradles you.”
Astrid’s first placement is in the home of Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a born-again, former stripper and recovering alcoholic. While touring her new home, Astrid is introduced to two other foster boys and Starr’s own rebellious daughter. It looks as if Astrid has been added to a menagerie that has been collected for the money that comes from housing foster children.
As she continues the tour, Starr asks Astrid whether she has made Jesus Christ her personal Lord and Savior. Astrid replies that she hasn’t, and Starr says that when she does, “He’ll be there waiting for you.” Astrid attends a Bible study and gets baptized. One of her foster brothers asks her if she really believes in Jesus now. She says, “It’s not such a bad thing to believe.” The boy, obviously a little brainiac, replies, “To know is better.” “Knowing,” says Astrid, “doesn’t tell you the difference between right and wrong.” She goes on to explain that she knew that her mother was killing her boyfriend, and that she could have saved the man, but she didn’t.
When Astrid and Ingrid are reunited for the first time, at the penitentiary, Ingrid’s character becomes more clearly defined. She tells Astrid that she actually likes prison life. “There is no hypocrisy…It’s either kill or be killed,” she says, “they don’t hurt me as much as I hurt them.”
When Ingrid sees a cross around Astrid’s neck she freaks. Astrid explains that she’s been baptized. Ingrid tells her daughter that “those people” are not to be trusted, and that Astrid should learn to think for herself. Astrid says that the church says thinking for yourself is evil. Her mother replies, “Thinking for yourself is evil? Am I evil?”
Astrid points out the fact that her mother is in prison for murdering a man, and has always tried to control who Astrid is and what she thinks. When Astrid suggests that maybe Ingrid should find out more about Jesus. Ingrid replies, “F___ my redemption. I regret nothing.” She leaves Ingrid with words to the effect of, “Evil is tricky. It changes forms. Its nature takes a lifetime to study. Those people are evil. I’m the only person who can keep you straight.” As Astrid leaves, she succumbs to her mother’s control and removes the cross.
Ingrid, unfortunately in this case, turns out to be right about Astrid’s situation, although for the wrong reasons. Starr is by no means an example of Christianity. She wears skimpy spandex, smokes, sleeps with her married boyfriend, Ray (Cole Hauser) – his wife left him five years prior, and she eventually relapses into alcoholism. Starr becomes suspicious of Ray and Astrid’s friendliness. Ray and Astrid have had sex a couple of times, and she has never known her father and craves male attention. One night, in a drunken rage, Starr jealously shoots at Astrid hitting her in the shoulder effectively ending her stay.
It’s too bad that this first family Astrid contacts wasn’t the last. This part of the movie could be considered Christian-bashing if it wasn’t so typical in real life. Although those who know better might question the validity of poor Starr’s salvation due to the presentation of her poor witness, many of the movie’s viewers may be deterred from seriously considering Christianity.
Astrid’s next stop on her tour of Los Angeles foster care system is in a state holding facility. Children stay there until they can be placed with another foster family. Our first view of the facility shows Astrid and another girl fighting because, the girl says, Astrid was messing with her boyfriend. That night, Astrid cuts her own hair short with a pocket knife. She then sneaks into the angry girl’s room and wakes her up by putting the knife to her throat. Astrid tells her that if she or her friends jump her again their throats will be cut while they sleep. Astrid is looking more and more like a chip off the old block.
While at the state facility, Astrid meets a kindred spirit in a comic book artist, named Patrick (Paul Trout of ALMOST FAMOUS). She initially shuns him due to her recent bad experience with Ray. Eventually, the artist side of her embraces him. Her mother, again, steps in to put a wedge between Astrid and anyone she bonds with. Ingrid tells her daughter that the boy is not an artist, but a cartoonist, and that she, Astrid, should not get attached so easily to anyone who shows her affection. The point soon becomes moot because another foster family is given guardianship of Astrid and she has to move to Malibu, California.
Her new family works in the film industry. The woman, Claire (Renee Zellwiger) is a struggling actress (budget horror films, so far) and her husband is a producer who seems to travel a lot. Claire is convinced that he is cheating on her. Astrid and Claire become fast friends. After spending a carefree afternoon running on the beach and resting in an ocean side café, she tells Claire that it had been the best day of her life. The two launch into a wonderful codependency. This is the first time Astrid has ever really felt like somebody loves her.
Ingrid jealously gets her fingers in the midst of her daughter’s situation again by finding out who Astrid’s new foster mother is. Claire begins getting letters from Ingrid. The two quickly move from pen pals to good friends. Claire is such and open book that Ingrid senses an easy prey. Claire is invited to the penitentiary on Astrid’s next visit. Toward the end of the visit, Ingrid asks Astrid if she can speak to Claire alone for a little while. During their private discussion it is obvious that seeds of destruction are being planted in Claire’s fragile heart.
Later that week, Claire’s husband, Mark (Noah Wyle of ER), demands that they return Astrid to social services or he’ll divorce her. He can clearly see that Astrid has become her best friend, and he uses the situation to manipulate Claire into doing his will. Claire realizes that he plans to separate her and Astrid and then to never to return to her himself; leaving Claire completely alone. She tells Astrid that she might as well stay, and warns her as they drift off to sleep together, “stay away from broken people.”
Sadly, that same night, due to her vulnerability, the seeds sown in her heart by Ingrid and rejection from her husband, Claire commits suicide with alcohol and pills. Astrid is sent back to the state facility by another emotional disaster. When Astrid visits her mother, soon after, she tells her that she “poisoned” Claire with words. Alluding to the M.O. that landed her in prison. Claire was the only authentically good person Astrid had ever known. “They don’t hurt us,” Astrid cries, “We hurt them…We are the enemy.”
Astrid realizes that she needs to separate herself from her mother and her influences. She tells Ingrid, that she is not coming back to visit her any more and that she’s going to leave her there alone. For the first time, something Astrid says seems to have an effect on her mother. Incredulous, Ingrid says, “I’m trying to help you.”
Astrid hand-picks her next foster parent. She is a brash Russian immigrant named Rena (Svetlana Efremova). Rena lives a liberal Bohemian lifestyle, yet is very conservative due to her entrepreneurial ventures. She has a couple of other teenage foster girls in her care besides Astrid. While Rena drives up and down the streets in the rich neighborhoods of Los Angeles, she makes the girls pick through the garbage to find clothing and items to sell at flea markets. Although her living environment is often crowded with people partying to loud music, Astrid seems to keep to herself and her art.
Ingrid resurfaces this time through a lawyer. The lawyer tells Astrid that her mother is concerned for her and wants to know if she needs anything, like maybe some money for a car or a place to live. The lawyer says that they have the means to help her. It turns out that the last two sentences are to butter Astrid up for the next question: will she testify, which means to lie, in court as to her mother’s fitness for early parole.
Astrid goes to see her mother in a final showdown of sorts. As a display of independence from her mother, she dyes her hair dark brown, like Rena’s, dresses in dark “gothic” styled clothing…and she smokes. She knows all of this will throw her mother off of her game. She tells her mother that she will lie for her in court if Ingrid will tell her the truth about a few things.
Ingrid, in answering her daughter’s questions, says that she killed her boyfriend in self defense because “He was killing me”; she simply showed Claire how to do what she was going to do anyway; and, that Astrid’s father was an artist who left her mother for good when she was eight years old.
Astrid asks about a woman she draws over and over, she seems to remember that her name was Annie, but doesn’t know who she is. Her mom is taken aback by her daughter’s memory. How could she possibly remember that? Ingrid explains that when Astrid was born, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of a child. She felt hostage to her newborn. Every time she cried it was a demand for attention and time that her mother was selfishly desiring for herself. One day Ingrid took Astrid to her neighbor, Annie, and asked her if she’d watch the baby for her while she went out for something; she never came back. She left her daughter with Annie for a little over a year. Ingrid says she escaped up the coast with a group of artists. It was wonderful to take a nap when she wanted, to make love all day and not have to answer to the demands of a baby that, at times, made her feel like dashing her against the wall.
By the time Ingrid returned from her holiday, little Astrid hadn’t seen her for over a year. Yet, she still lifted her arms to her mother as if she recognized her … as if she had been waiting for her. Astrid responds that she has constantly waited for her mother. Her mom tied her up in front of stores while she shopped. She left her here and there while she carried on with her life.
“Look at me,” says Astrid, “I am the price of belonging to you.”
Ingrid tells Astrid she loves her, Astrid replies that if she really does love her she’ll let her go and not require her to lie for her in court. During the trial, Astrid is waiting in the hall when the court abruptly adjourns. She never was called in to testify. Her mother told the lawyer not to bother her anymore. Astrid marvels, “she let me go.”
Astrid moves to New York with her artist boyfriend and seems to live happily ever after. In summing up the story, Astrid explains about her mother, “No matter how much she damaged me, no matter how flawed, I know she loves me.”
This is a long, sad, psychological drama with little redeeming value. It maps out the development of an unfortunate girl who becomes a woman in the midst of some very unstable people. One of the purported truths revealed in the movie is that everyone comes from some level of a dysfunctional family (which, of course, is not true). We can separate ourselves from the craziness by forgiving and loving those who have hurt us. Producer, John Wells says, “Part of becoming an adult is the realization that our parents have a great many of their own failings and frustrations, that they are human and not omnipotent. Their love, though genuine, may be as imperfect as they are, and we have to accept that for what it is if we’re to move forward.”
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