White Oleander is a 2002 film adopted from the novel of the same name by Janet Fitch.
8 out of 10 stars. Casting really does make a difference when it comes to films like this. Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman make this work.
Astrid is a 12 year old girl living with her mom Ingrid Magnussen, a famous artist/photographer, in Los Angeles. Ingrid has a love/hate relationship with her boyfriend Barry Kolker. It’s actually difficult to understand this relationship because Ingrid is gorgeous, young, and talented while Barry is ugly, old, and struggling to get famous. Ingrid has a nasty habit of involving Astrid in their relationship. She’ll take her to Barry’s house, leave her in the car for hours, while she goes inside and has sex with Barry. Then one day she drives to Barry’s, leaves Astrid in the car, and goes inside to have sex with Barry. Hours later she comes out crying, wakes Astrid, and tells her that Barry made love to her then told her she had to leave because he had a date.
Ingrid is arrested within days for the murder of Barry by poisoning with white oleander sap mixed with DMSO, something that Astrid saw and said nothing about. She is sentenced to life in prison and Astrid is taken into foster care.
Here’s where the film differs significantly from the novel. In the novel there are about six foster homes that Astrid goes through over the course of the next six years. In the film there are only three.
Her first foster home is with Starr, a forty something mother of two who also has two other foster children. That makes five kids in her tiny house along with her and her married boyfriend Ray. It’s actually a pretty nice home and Astrid gets attached to the other kids, but she also develops a relationship with Ray. She’s never had a dad and Ray’s a nice guy. But Astrid ruins that by seducing Ray. Starr finds out and shoots Astrid. What’s shocking is that Starr and Ray leave the house with nothing but the youngest child there and he’s the one who has to call 9-1-1 to save Astrid. He begs her not to tell the police who shot her, so she doesn’t.
For awhile she goes to a juvenile housing facility called Mac, but most of the kids there are members of gangs or violent. There are exceptions and one of these exceptions finds Astrid. His name is Paul and he’s another artist.
After a few weeks, Astrid is finally sent to a new foster home, that of an actress Claire and her producer husband Mark who is never home. They’re rich and live on a beach. Claire buys Astrid designer clothes and takes her jogging. She treats Astrid like her own child, probably because she can’t have children. She suspects Mark is cheating on her and every fight they have he brings up the fact that she’s unable to have children. This is the happiest Astrid has ever been because she’s finally loved. Then Ingrid starts writing Claire and Claire asks to see her. That’s a mistake. Ingrid manipulates people and she manipulates Claire. As soon as they get home Claire starts a fight with Mark and he leaves. That night Claire kills herself with pills and later Ingrid tells Astrid she told her how.
Astrid is taken back to Mac and this time she refuses to speak with Paul. She doesn’t want to get close to anyone that her mother can manipulate. Paul tells her he’s turning eighteen and going to New York City like they planned and he wants her to come along. She says no. So he tells her to go to the comic book store where they buy comics and he’ll leave a message there for her if she changes her mind. Then Astrid visits her mother and tells her she’s done with her.
Her next foster home is a Russian woman who uses her foster kids as free labor. She takes them along wealthy neighborhoods on trash day and has them search through trash for designer items, mostly clothing, that they can sell at street markets. There are four other teenage foster kids, but Astrid is the smartest so Rena, the Russian foster mom, invites her to stay and become her partner.
Before she can leave Ingrid’s new attorney finds Astrid and asks her to testify on behalf of her mother. Astrid refuses and Rena tells her she should do it for a price. Astrid goes to the comic book store that she and Paul always frequented and asks the owner if Paul has left a message for her. There’s actually a stack of letters. So she writes to Paul in New York City and he comes to visit.
Astrid goes to visit Ingrid and agrees to lie for her in court if she answers some questions. The first is why did she kill Barry. Ingrid says because he was killing me. The second question is who is Annie. For most of Astrid’s life she’s drawn images of a woman she doesn’t know but she does remember her name is Annie. Ingrid tells her when Astrid was little Ingrid took her to the neighbor babysitter, Annie, and disappeared for a year. Then she finally came back for Astrid. The third question is who is her father. Ingrid tells her he was Klaus Anders, another artist who got her pregnant then disappeared when Astrid was six months old. He came back when Astrid was ten years old, but Ingrid wouldn’t let her see him. All of this is shocking for Astrid who has never had a chance to know the people who actually loved her, Annie and Klaus. So she begs her mother, if she loves her, to let her go.
On the day of the trial, Astrid and Paul wait outside of the courtroom for her to be called in to testify. Instead the courtroom is emptied and her mother is taken away. Her attorney tells Astrid that Ingrid told her not to involve you. So in essence, Ingrid was finally letting Astrid go.
Astrid moves to New York City with Paul where they both work as artists. Astrid has made a collection of suitcases, each one representing a home where she stayed.
8 out of 10 stars. This is definitely one of Michelle Pfeiffer’s best roles. Alison Lohman was convincing as Astrid although she was in her late twenties when she played this role.