Although this is a film of triumph, it is not a feel-good movie. And while it is the story of a girl, this is not your quintessential “chick flick,” either.
Like American Beauty, which leaves its audience unclear about the message it is sending, White Oleander is too sad to make you laugh and too confusing to make you cry. But whatever feeling the audience gets from the film, it’s still a trip worth taking.
Alison Lohman’s performance as the daughter of a murderous mom is the driving point of the film. Her believability through her character’s changes helps lend to the exceptional level of escapism. The audience ends up rooting for her because though she’s young, she’s self-assured and mature enough to overcome her obstacles. And in White Oleander, there are plenty of them.
The audience first finds young Astrid (Lohman) working on what is obviously a set of artistic suitcases, with odds and ends inside, while a voice-over monologue can be heard.
She is then seen with her mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfieiffer), who is an artist and has shown her daughter the difference between art and crap that passes for art. Ingrid has an extremely complicated relationship with her current lover, which leads to her arrest for his murder about 15 minutes into the movie.
Astrid is then shifted from one foster home to the next. Along her way, she meets a blonde Jesus-praiser named Starr (Robin Wright Penn), who is also an alcoholic and wears a purple velvet top and hot pink leggings. But that ends after Astrid has an affair with Star’s live-in boyfriend.
Next she lands in a teen shelter where she gets in fights with other girls, meets a nice heroin-addicted boy (Patrick Fugit) and lops off her long, blond hair. It’s during the shelter sequence that allows a break from the rest of the melodramatic movie.
All the while, Astrid visits with her mom in prison and is reminded that no one is like the two of them. They are survivors – people who can make others do what they want. By this point, it is discovered that Ingrid is quite sick and manipulative. At the same time, everything her mother says shows the fine line between crazy and brilliant.
But when she is placed with new foster mom Claire (Renee Zelwegger), Astrid thinks Claire is the best mother she could possibly ask for. But one trip to prison is all Claire can handle.
The final stop in Astrid’s transformation is the home of a Russian immigrant who steals people’s trash and sells it at flea markets. This helps Astrit realize that everything has a price, and no one really cares about a pretty little blonde girl.
In the end, Astrid starts asking the questions she’s been dying to all along – where her father is, why her mother is as selfish as she is, why she doesn’t love her enough to let her be happy. The final scene isn’t one of those stupid “What will Astrid do now?” cliff-hangers. The audience realizes that she’ll take everything that’s happened to her and use it to shape her life. The suitcases are a fantastic example.
What makes this movie so good is that through all the nitty-gritty details of one young girl’s life, you’re able to clearly see that even if you don’t know what it’s all about, she does.
You’ll love this movie because Astrid is so strong and because her mother is so crazy. And even if you didn’t really understand anything that happened, you’ll love that it all turns out right in the end.
The cast is phenomenal, and deserving of attention at end-of-the-year awards ceremonies.
But please, if you think White Oleander will make a good “girls night out,” think again.
Contact Rachael Scialabba at firstname.lastname@example.org