Nerium Oleander, a beautiful shrub with a pale white flower, beautiful....but deadly. Based on the best selling novel by Janet Fitch, White Oleander can be loosely categorized as a coming of age drama telling the story of Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) and her bohemian artist and poet mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) the White Oleander of the title.. At the start of the movie Astrid is 14 and is happy living life under the loving but emotionally controlling care of her mother. Ingrid teaches Astrid to be independent; to rely on no one but herself and her mother and to avoid any relationship where she allows herself to care about another as this will only end in her pain. However whilst trying to run her own relationship with Barry (Billy Connelly in a blink and you'll miss him cameo) along similar lines she is less than pleased to find him sleeping around. Soon after Barry is found dead, Ingrid is arrested and imprisoned for 35yrs and 12-year-old Astrid is suddenly alone in the world with only her wits and her mother's advice to guide her.
Astrid finds herself farmed out to a variety of foster homes and care homes but her mother is never far from her thoughts and regular letters and visits to jail prevent Astrid from developing her own beliefs and personality, causing most of her relationships to end in tragedy or disaster. The story arc follows the next 6 or so years in Astrid's life as she struggles for her focus and independence whilst living her life under the influence of several very different women.
White Oleander is really meaty drama in a sort of Stand By Me meets Psycho kind of way. Dealing with drugs, prostitution, under age sex, murder and suicide can make for a heavy nights viewing. There is no light-hearted banter, and seemingly no hope or redemption for any of the characters, any flicker of joy or kindness for Astrid is quickly extinguished. So what kept me watching with rapt attention? Simple. The outstanding performances from Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman. Pfeiffer is chillingly compelling playing against type as the over protective, jealous mother regularly quashing her daughters hopes and dreams even from behind the prison walls. Better still is Alison Lohman, an actress I first saw in Matchstick Men where she was great as Nic Cage's daughter, but her she is quite magnificent. She becomes an emotional chameleon, able to fit quietly into all of the foster placements from a born again Christian, alcoholic, topless dancer (Robin Wright-Penn woefully underused but still sublime) to a lonely, infertile, jobbing actress seeking a daughter and a friend (another fine performance from the always watchable Renee Zellweger). Her pain as each of these relationships wither and die is palpable. The film is shot entirely from Astrid's point of view, meaning she is in just about every scene. It is fair to say she takes the acting honours in almost every one of them, although she is pushed pretty close by Wright-Penn and Zellweger, and probably just pipped by Pfeiffer in the climactic scene. Her blossoming maturity, with a mix of wide-eyed innocence makes you cross you fingers and hope she can survive. You don't enjoy this movie you endure it, but you know the saying “Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger”? Well this movie will make you stronger if you can survive it.
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