Beautiful and Dangerous
White Oleander
Review by Ross Anthony

When I was young, my mother took in foster children -- three, I think. One would visit us every other weekend, one stayed with us for four or five years, one I only saw once. They were all very different, it's what they lacked that made them similar -- a place to call home. One girl in particular, I tried to understand, she seemed to crave that (my understanding) and sit ready to stab it at the same time. The less I tried to make sense of her, the better we got along. My mother told me that she had a hard life and we had to overlook her outbreaks. I often wondered what her life was like before she "came to us" and after she went back to her mother and why her mother couldn't take care of her in the first place.

"White Oleander" fills in some blanks for me. That's not to say that Astrid (Allison Lohman), the film's foster child, was like my foster sister ... but I get the picture.

Raised by a dangerous, beautiful artist mother (Pfeiffer) who is promptly incarcerated for murder, Astrid spends the rest of the movie moving from home to home. The people in her "lives" make bigger marks on her than it seemed that our family did on my sister, though we tried, at least my mother did. Through her teens, Astrid tries on each new set of friends & family, checks and adjusts her identity, all the while embracing/rejecting ego-shaping comments/commandments from her strong-willed mother. It's really a rite of passage/coming of age film. Real life for Astrid serves well as an analogy for all of us constantly re-evaluating ourselves as we meet new and different, hopefully interesting people and environments.

Strong direction, excellent real dialogue, good story telling and a sympathetically marvelous performance by Allison Lohman. Since Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Ingrid, is ultimately unlikable, I couldn't tell if it was Ingrid I didn't like or Michelle's portrayal of her. Both Zellweger and Wright-Penn are marvelous also and completely believable in their respective roles as Astrid's serial foster moms. I also enjoyed the de-emphasis on the actual crime in exchange for 100% focus toward its effects on Astrid. Astrid's journey flows on film nicely, though what serves as resolution seems a bit of a departure from the picture's otherwise refreshing harsh honesty. That said, the suitcase art installation suits the film perfectly. We all have our baggage don't we?

Note: Impressed with the source material the director made but one major alteration to exclude from the film those few scenes depicting incidents that Astrid herself could not have witnessed. "It struck me straightway," he explains, "that this is Astrid's story and the film must maintain her perspective throughout. She leads us through this world and we meet her foster families and absorb the various incidents along with her. We never see anything that Astrid herself could not have seen."

  • White Oleander. Copyright © 2002.
  • Starring Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Billy Connolly, Patrick Fugit,Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle.
  • Directed by Peter Kosminsky.
  • Screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue.
  • Based on the novel by Janet Fitch.
  • Produced by John Wells Hunt Lowry at Warner Bros /Pandora. (c) 2002. Rated PG-13.

Grade..........................A- (strong)

Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 07:49:59 PDT