White Oleander (2002)
Running time: 109 minutes (1 hour, 49 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence
DIRECTOR: Peter Kosminsky
WRITER: Mary Alice Donoghue (from the novel by Janet Fitch)
PRODUCERS: Hunt Lowry and John Wells
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Elliot Davis (D.o.P.)
EDITOR: Chris Ridsdale
COMPOSER: Thomas Newman
Starring: Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, Amy Aquino, Patrick Fugit, Cole Hauser, Noah Wylie, Marc Donato, Billy Connolly, and Dallas McKinney
The subject of this movie review is White Oleander, a 2002 American drama film. It based upon the 1999 novel of the same name from author Janet Fitch, a novel which also has the distinction of being picked for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999.
In White Oleander, Michelle Pfeiffer is Ingrid Magnussen, a woman sentenced to prison when she murders her lover in a crime of passion. Her imprisonment sends her daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman) on a journey through the foster care system where she undergoes intense experiences of love, loss, and near death. She, however, never loses touch with her mother, maintaining contact through letters and Astrid’s brief visits to the prison. As the years past, Astrid begins to resent her mother’s insistence that she live her life as her mother wishes, and their relationship becomes a war between a controlling mother and a teenage girl determined to find her own way.
I could describe the film White Oleander (the name of a beautiful, but deadly poisonous plant) as beautiful, but I would have to add on the descriptive term, “hauntingly.” If you like chick movies, especially sad chick movies, White Oleander is one of the best I’ve seen in ages. It is unrelentingly sad, and that has put off some viewers, but the performances are monster and deserve to be seen. Ms. Pfieffer can play the shrinking violet as well as anyone (see Dangerous Liaisons), but her talents are quite sharp when she extends her razor-like claws of her talent into bad girl/misunderstood woman roles (The Fabulous Baker Boys or her voice work in the animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas). Young Alison Lohman shows an ability to channel pain that recalls the early work of the first lady of tragic heroines, Meryl Streep. Ms. Lohman dominates this movie, and she saves this from being a dreadful movie of the week. Director Peter Kosminsky (an award-winning television movie director) smartly lets her shine.
White Oleander is quite engaging and enthralling, unusual for a movie of such palatable sadness, but it’s rewarding. It’s a feel good movie about surviving the really rough patches in life. I fault an incoherent script for running from one sad scene to another as if the writer was trying to make a grocery list of the bad things that can happen in life. The film never really slows down to take the time and show us the process of Astrid growing up and growing independent. Still, this has to be one of the prettiest sad movies in a long time. It’s like a beautiful car wreck and if you’re not careful, you might find yourself in love with all this pain.
7 of 10