"Don't forget who you are," warns Ingrid Magnussen (Pfeiffer) each time her teenage daughter comes to visit her in prison. But before she can forget, Astrid (Lohman), along with the viewer, must learn who she is. "The best part of me," says the elusive Ingrid, "is hidden, and you have to do the same." It takes all of White Oleander and a chain of traumatic experiences before Astrid acquires enough self-knowledge to free herself from her mother's damaging directives.
Lovely but toxic, the white oleander is a fitting symbol for radiant, fair-haired Ingrid, for whom love is humiliating, hatred exhilarating. She exults in imprisonment, because it brings out the honest worst in her and her fellow inmates. "There's no hypocrisy here," says Ingrid from inside a state penitentiary. Forced to serve 35 to life for murdering a faithless lover, she does her cunning best to poison her gorgeous daughter with her own bitter despair. Astrid, too, is a perilous flower, though she dyes her hair away from its naturally pale shade. When her mother is incarcerated, Astrid, whose father abandoned them when she was six months old, becomes a ward of the state, commuting between a dismal public institution and a series of three foster homes.
At the first, dominated by a flamboyant, violent, born-again tramp named Starr Thomas (Penn), Astrid barely survives the tumult of what Ingrid dismisses as "a pack of Bible-thumping trailer trash." The explosive household includes: Ray (Hauser), a randy working man; Carolee (Stauber) a raunchy, rebellious daughter; and Davey (Donato), a nerdy young son. Astrid's second foster mother, Claire (Zellweger), is a hapless actress and a spurned wife desperate for a child to change her life. Her third, Rena (Efremova), is a plucky Russian immigrant who follows the credo that: "It's smart to make money." Each of these women is memorable enough to make Astrid, and the viewer, forget Ingrid — almost.
White Oleander could be called a Dickensian portrait of coming of age, if only Dickens had lived in southern California and been as interested in mother-daughter relationships as he was in fathers and sons. Though based on a popular novel, by Janet Fitch, the film conveys the vivid conviction of memoir. However, two-thirds of the way through, it loses its careening momentum, when the script ceases to trust its audience and starts to be tendentious, telling rather than showing. An extensive prison conversation between Ingrid and Astrid belongs either in an essay about the film or else on the cutting-room floor.
Like her mother, who becomes the object of a feminist cult, a major artist working behind bars, Astrid possesses extraordinary talents for visual representation. Hesitantly yet perhaps a bit patly, she takes up with another social outcast, Paul (Fugit), a crack baby who learned to transmute his poisons into haunting drawings. By the end of the film, Astrid, whose voiceover frames the entire story, has discovered that though there is danger in beauty there is also beauty in danger. Like Joseph Cornell, she creates brilliant boxes filled with objects from her troubled life. Peter Kosminsky's film aims to be just such a box. Close, but no cigar.
Several ethical questions are mulched into the pot of White Oleander. "I could've saved his life, but I didn't," says Astrid about her mother's murdered boyfriend, but it is never entirely clear just why the daughter should feel responsible for the misdeeds of her mother. Late in the film, mother and daughter each confront an opportunity to rescue the other. Yet the way in which each responds tells us less about character than about the tyranny of a studio plot.
Nevertheless, White Oleander leaves an acrid aroma. It is a rare double portrait, of the artist as a maternal felon and of an adolescent sketcher, each condemned in her own way to serve out Ingrid's stark sentence: "Loneliness is the human condition."
"Acrid mother-daughter love-hate"
Dir. Peter Kosminsky; writ. Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on a novel by Janet Fitch; feat. Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Svetlana Efremova, Cole Hauser, Liz Stauber, Marc Donato (PG-13)