White Oleander

A Film Review By Michael Haley

Rating:PG-13 for some language, and strong adult content.
Starring: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pheiffer, Renee Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Robin Wright Penn.
Directed By: Peter Kosminsky.

Final Grade:

White Oleander, although a more appropriate title would be A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman (sans James Joyces’ unreadable but oh so beautiful prose) first appeared on the scene awhile ago in novel format, and was inducted into Oprah’s Book of the Month Club, a club that I don’t have a high amount of respect for. Yes, some of them were good like Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections, but for the most part, the stories contain numerous women’s issues (a good thing) but are bogged down by juvenile male bashing and finger pointing (not a good thing). I steered clear of White Oleander when it was in book form because of this fear of the almighty literary power that is Oprah (or so she shall have us believe), but the way the trailer used the Sheryl Crow song “Safe and Sound” with the images did something for me. So, I took a trip to North Grand Five and took a look at it, and you know something? I liked it. That’s right, I actually liked a movie for a change. I must be getting soft in my young age…

Since I never read the book, I can make no comparison, and will therefore judge only that which I gained from the film as a basis for my opinion. The film revolves around Astrid Magnussen, who is living fairly peacefully with her mom. Her mom is of the belief that one must suffer and die for the arts, and tries to bring her daughter up in the way of the artist (but never teaches her anything about modernism! What the hell’s up with that?) Than one day the police come and take mommy away on charges of murder, leaving Astrid in the care of several foster homes and in-between points for the next three years. One foster mother is a Jesus freak who’s so hypocritical she puts a bullet in poor Astrid, the next a kind and genuinely nice person who’s lonely in ways no one could imagine, one who (might) pimp her out as well as sell all of her stuff, and several run-ins with the brutal orphanage. She continues to keep in contact with her mother with letters sent to and from prison, where her mother condemns her for living a life that’s not her own (but is the mother’s own) until she gets to a point where she has reached her mother’s goal of being herself, and must break the ties that hold her down.

In the wrong hands, this material could have easily been mush, but thankfully the actresses pull off a tremendous feat and create characters that are truly likable, despicable, yet people that elicit our sympathies even when we know they don’t deserve it. Zellweger is especially strong as Claire Richards, the second foster mother who is also a washed up actress, who may be a dilettante when it comes to the art world that Pheiffer demands upon her child, but is so genuinely likable and wonderful that I almost wanted to see a movie that was solely about her character. She makes an exit that is deeply felt, and gives us a sad insight into how fragile her pleasant existence was. I also really admired Alison Lothom’s performance as Astrid, who must deal with the loss of a parent who may not have been all that good for her anyway, yet deal with the many people that ultimately join together to make up her psyche, brought out upon in striking drawings and the suitcases that represent the separate experiences that come together to make her whole (I’ve heard the novel delivers a fuller answer to the suitcase stuff…anyone who’s read it feel free to fire me an e-mail telling me where I’m wrong as everything I inferred from the film.) Because I only have so much room to work with, I’ll just throw it out that Wright Penn and Pheiffer were quite good as well, and this is a very strongly acted piece of work.

There are a few detractors of course, and I wouldn’t be doing my job I’m getting paid diddly squat for if I didn’t point them out. For starters, at times the film does veer a little far over into typical Oprah territory…that at the end of the day, it’s all about love, look out how bad my life can get (never mind I’m working on a similarly themed novel, but so it goes) and so forth. Also, the ending didn’t quite pack the wallop that the story had generated in its anticipation, which was a slight but not earth shattering let down. In addition, there are several points in the film where the holes that were left unfilled from the novel are highly apparent…such as a scene where crazy women are jumping her in the foster home, screaming something about stealing a man or something, which is never delved into. Also, did Pheiffer kill the man with White Oleander? If so, than how come it was in self-defense? And why is she going across the border to get illegal drugs? Hmm.

Although I’m still highly recommending the movie, the final gripe I have is its PG-13 certificate. There are several threads of the story, such as Astrid’s love affair with her first step father when she was fifteen or so, that aren’t done any sort of justice because the film wishes to shy away from honest sexuality. Why is it that films can show numerous shots of death ala Half Past Dead given a PG-13, whereas movies like Y Tu Mama Tambien or Happiness that deal honestly with sexuality go unrated (or face an NC-17?) There are other threads of the story that aren’t developed in this manner (like Penn’s hypocrisy in sleeping with someone even though she’s found Jesus) that warrant a richer story that unfortunately doesn’t come through. After viewing the film, I do wish to read the novel now, if only to see these threads more fully realized but were compromised to attain a PG-13.
If I’ve made this movie sound bad, I apologize. Despite its restrictive flaws, Peter Kosminsky has crafted a wonderful and moving tale of irony and woe, that’s highly sympathetic towards its characters we have come to care for (except for maybe Wright-Penn). It won’t be playing for much longer, so don’t miss this one…White Oleander is an excellent film.

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