Director: Peter Koshminsky
Screenplay: Mary Agnes Donoghue (from Janet Fitch’s novel)
White Oleander is a drama film that tells the story about a girl – Astrid – that goes from foster home to foster home while her mother – Ingrid – is in jail, accused of murder. The story is quite simple but the characters are interesting to see. I didn’t read the book so I can only talk about the movie. Here we go…
To me, Ingrid, Astrid and Claire, one of Astrid’s foster moms, are the characters with most interest. Ingrid is an artist who thinks attachment only leads to suffer and is determined to not be tamed by anyone. She’s determined to pass her values to her child, Astrid, wishing for her to also be strong and independent. In the beginning of the movie we can understand Ingrid has some problems from the way she behave. Throughout the movie, at least until the moment she’s arrested, we can observe her behavior and conclude she’s a selfish person who doesn’t always think about her daughter, but only cares about herself. Note that they live together with nobody else. For instants, we can see how she does not care to go to a parents meeting at Astrid’s school or cares to leave her inside the car while she goes to make love to her lover – with whom she has an unstable relationship. Despite it all, the two seem to have a very open relationship, with Ingrid talking to her daughter about everything and always trying to make her confident about herself, as she herself is.
Astrid starts off as a girl who does not say anything about what happens around her, she’s a “sweetheart”, as one of her “foster dads” tells her at some point. She lives constantly accepting her mother’s selfishness and dramas without saying a word and as the movie goes we see her building her own character, her own personality (or at least the beginning since when the film ends she seems to be 17 or so, and we all know how long it takes to build ourselves), relieving herself from her mother’s or any of other foster families’ beliefs. She goes through a lot and you’re going to cry watching the damn movie (moreover if you have a troubled relationship with the mother you greatly love.)
Moving on: there’s a scene where Astrid goes visit her mother in jail, who notices a cross on her neck. As Astrid explains why she’s wearing it and tries to convince her mother (and herself) that those with whom she is atm are good people, Ingrid keeps telling her not to forget who she is and not to be misguided by the enemy, not to swallow other people’s ideas, much less the church! As Astrid leaves the prison, she takes the cross out. Once again she could not yet decide.
This first foster family are a dysfunctional family where the mother, Starr (at least she’s the mother of one girl) is super religious, despite her past and despite breaking her own “christian rules”. Her true daughter is the opposite, she seems like a normal teen who hasn’t “accept Jesus as her savior”, who escapes through the window at night to go out (well, that might not be that normal, but with a crazy mother…). There are also two boys being guarded by them. The “father” is Starr’s lover, Ray, a married man who does not see his wife and kid for 5 years. Apparently Astrid has a thing for older men and the two get involved (implicitly). Starr grows jealous and, in an act of despair, ends up shooting Astrid. Yes, you read it: she shots her. This was a point in the movie where I thought “Ok, now this is getting interesting”. Not that I don’t like movies about troubled relationships between mothers and daughters by themselves, but the movie seemed very “normal” to me until this point (well except for the affair Astrid has with Ray, which made me a little nervous, but I think I can assign that to her “daddy issues”).
“I guess it’s hard getting older… pretty girl coming up in the house…” – Ray. Once again I thought about Time and about life with just a simple phrase. By seeing Starr and how she wears her mask made me think. I don’t think I have to deepen this subject that much. Although it’s a simple thing, it’s also a heavy thing: to see the years pass by so fast in front of your eyes. Some people accept it, but others, like Starr, don’t deal that well with the fact that they are getting older (despite being still in her late thirties perhaps and having still a fabulous figure). One can also compare how men and women accept this and how society sees the aging process in both genders. But that’s not what I want to discuss here now.
Obviously the family breaks apart and Astrid has to be transferred to another one, bot before staying a while in an institution where she gets in trouble for getting involved with other girls boyfriends. We are not told that, we just see a fight where she’s being accused of looking to a guy. This a time when her mother advises her to treasure her beauty as a gift. She gets friends with a boy, Paul, who’s obviously fond of her. Right after the fight, she decides to shop her hair off and after doing that she threatens the girl with whom was fighting, in the middle of the night, with a knife, at her bed. This for itself shows she’s getting stronger, she now has something to say, she can now fight back too. And the cutting of the hair shows a change in her character too. She gets rid of her old self. When they manage to find her another family, she’s moved again.
This time we see the opposite of what she had before: a perfect family, but only of two. Claire and Mark. Mark is always out on business and Claire is a simple woman who can’t have children. They seem perfect for each other, the three of them, although the looks on Mark’s eyes don’r seem that perfect. We see how Claire is a loving person and she and Astrid do lots of things. Once again Astrid is being influenced by her surroundings and starts dressing like her foster mother, who she realizes she’s starting to love. The two have a close relationship and Claire tells Astrid she doesn’t go on business with her husband because she says she slows him down. That’s the first sign we see of her mask. She then tells her she often thinks he has an affair with someone, to which Astrid replies she’s being paranoid. They both don’t want to believe that, they both want to keep living a perfect life. Astrid continues to visit her mother, who’s always commenting on her looks and behavior, always reminding her not to forget who she is. Something Ingrid said earlier in the movie starts to make much sense now: evil changes, when we think we know what evil is, it changes its form. And now we are watching just that: before we had the idea her mother, even though we don’t know yet about her innocence, was a good person, despite her little flaws, everyone has them. Now I thought she was in fact not only selfish, but also manipulative. We see a close relationship between a mother and a daughter, growing apart and hateful. I can say their relationship was close because despite Ingrid’s faults, her child loved her very much, and she loved her child. But now things are getting reversed, she’s getting jealous and scared to lose her daughter, and Astrid is getting sick of that.
Well, long story short, Claire commits suicide after a visit to Ingrid. Of course we can’t blame Ingrid, but through Astrid’s eyes, she had her role on Claire’s death. For the first time in her life Astrid had someone who truly loved her for who she was, but her mother took it away. This only contributed to their withdrawal.
She goes back to the institution until getting another family. This time she’s the one choosing her foster mother: Rena, an immigrant with two other girls who only thinks about money. She does not care much about her “daughters” but she doesn’t treat them bad either. She’s all about doing business every time she can, and tries to “teach” it to Astrid (as she gets an offer from her mother’s lawyer).
Astrid stays some time without visiting her mother, but when Ingrid’s lawyer shows up she goes visit her once again. Ingrid is somehow shocked by her daughter’s appearance, as Astrid is now completely different from what she used to be. Astrid wants to make a deal with her mother: if Ingrid tells her all about her past and all about what she’s kept secret from her, she testifies in court, otherwise she won’t lie for her. She ends up finding out about her father and about how her mother didn’t want to put up with her when she was a baby, which, of course, hurt her. As her mother, Astrid is a born artist and there’s this drawing she’s always doodling, a woman, but she doesn’t remember who that woman is. She also finds it out in this conversation: Ingrid left her for a year with her because she couldn’t bear it anymore. Basically she abandoned her child and returned a year later. Astrid is shocked and angry and all those feeling of being neglected and being always in her mother’s shadow and stuff come to words. Eventually, Astrid makes her final request: she basically asks her mother to leaver her alone and, because of that, Ingrid has to spend her life in jail, so that Astrid can go back the way she was, or that will be the price for being her daughter, the way she is now, that rebellious attitude and hatred.
Astrid then meets Paul, after picking up all his letters she preferred to ignore all that time (convinced that her mother’s theory of independence and detachment would work, or maybe just angry at life) and the two go to court where, by Astrid’s surprise, her mother sacrificed her freedom for her own freedom, as she didn’t had to testify. Paul and Astrid go live together and we see Astrid’s art works: several suitcases showing the several most phases of her early life. The film ends with Astrid as a voice off narrator, telling us that despite all her mother’s flaws, she misses her very much and knows her mother loves her.
Going back a little, to when Astrid thinks she finally finds what’s like to be loved, because of Clair, I say we are talking about a motherly love, because she had already experienced Paul’s love, and he truly likes her, so it’s not the first time someone genuinely loved her. When she gets reunited with him, she finally realizes the truth in his feelings and finally lets go her chains to her mother’s ideas of being strong through detachment.
I also want to make a note about the soundtrack: once again I was touched by Thomas Newman’s marvelous music. If you hadn’t heard, prepare to cry. I first heard his piano in American Beauty and was immediately delighted. It’s very emotional and beautifully sad.
Also, the title! There is little reference to white oleanders, just that they are poisonous, but I didn’t really see any connection with the whole picture… Can it symbolise Ingrid and Astrid? Are they “poisonous” to those around them and “purify” themselves in the end? Is Astrid the oleander? A poisonous pretty flower, who has affairs with older men because she’s broken? What are your thoughts?