A onetime Oprah Book Club selection and monumental bestseller, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander now comes to theaters, courtesy of award-winning British director Peter Kosminsky. The result is a hardworking, episodic saga of one girl’s journey from scary childhood to sensitive young artist-hood. Beginning with a bad mother and ending with a good man, this expedition takes a number of years and spans various classes in Los Angeles. Proudly unsubtle, it’s the kind of movie that gives chick flicks a bad name.
Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) loves her mom, the lithe and steely artist Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). But, as Astrid explains in her lilting voiceover, she knows that Ingrid probably isn’t the healthiest influence to be around. “I belonged to her,” Astrid sighs, adding with wistful irony, “Being with someone so dangerous was the last time that I felt safe.” The film goes on to explore this ostensible opposition (and emotional collapse) between safety and danger, by tracking Astrid’s movements from foster home to foster home, all the way through to the end credits, accompanied by Sheryl Crow’s remixed and suddenly much-beloved, following her dramatic performance at the 2002 VMAs, “Safe and Sound.” You can never appreciate the significance of security, it seems, until you’ve felt endangered.
The dangerous-but-safe-seeming Ingrid thus embodies an important object lesson for Astrid, namely, don’t let your desires overpower you. At first, she appears as a romantic heroine to her young daughter, gorgeous (she is Michelle Pfeiffer, after all), ardent, energetic and earnest. Reading her poetry aloud on the rooftop, she appears to Astrid (and the camera) almost magical, her hair blowing softly in the breeze. She trains Astrid in all aspects of art appreciation, fiercely insisting that she look at mom’s collages before saying she likes them: “You can’t be an artist,” she says, “if you don’t see.”
Ingrid’s dedication to her daughter is boundless, until she meets Barry (Billy Connolly), who appears mostly from Astrid’s point of view, at a fuzzy distance. When he stops calling, Ingrid’s rage and grief are overwhelming, especially for Astrid, who can only observe as her mother unravels. The climax comes when, one morning, the cops come to take Ingrid away on first degree murder charges. Seems she’s poisoned Barry with crushed white oleanders, a poetically overheated metaphor that grants the film a frightful tagline (“Oleander can be poisonous… so can a mother’s love”). In a flashback that recurs when Astrid goes to visit mom in a maximum security prison, Barry comes pounding on the door, “You can’t do this to me!” (Imagine this situation: knowing you are poisoned, smashing your murderer’s windows, to no avail: shades of Edmond O’Brien.) Ingrid responds, equally wrathful but infinitely icier, “You don’t know what I can do!”
Incarcerated, Ingrid becomes, in her daughter’s eyes, rather mythic, because she can take what’s dished out (she appears with face bruised, slightly, but her hair is ever-silky) and because the first foster mother is the alcoholic and fervently born-again Starr (Robin Wright Penn), fond of spandex and makeup, and married to pretty boy carpenter Ray (Cole Hauser). He’s immediately attractive to Astrid, who is, of course, more like her mom than she knows. During one prison visit, Ingrid spots a post-baptism crucifix on Astrid’s neck, and recoils in disgust, telling Astrid that such white-trashy religion is for the weak: “We’re not like them, we’re the Vikings.” Desperate to emulate her mother’s potency, Astrid heads back to the trailer to assert herself.
While Starr drags Astrid and her own kids off to church regularly, Ray wears a t-shirt and works on his truck. “If there’s a God,” he tells Astrid, “He ain’t worth prayin’ to.” This makes sense to Righteously Angry Girl, but when she and Ray start exploring other similar interests, Starr explodes, and Astrid’s sent off to the depressing state home for unplaceable kids, McKinney Hall (not quite so harsh as the joints where Linda Blair repeatedly found herself, but in the ballpark).
Here she meets an aspiring comic-book artist, Paul (Patrick Fugit, as sensitive an object of a young girl’s affection as ever graced a movie screen). But just when they start feeling tight, Astrid is assigned to another foster home, this time that of sweet and needy Claire (Renée Zellweger). She has a nice dog and beachfront home, working occasionally as an actress; treating Astrid as the sister-friend she never had, she regales her with tales of her slasher movie experience, by way of a video clip of Zellweger’s work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, and moans about her often-absent commercial director husband Mark (Noah Wyle, unctuous as ever).
If you’ve stayed focused, you will have noticed by now that blonds are the kiss of death for Astrid (also blond), and so it continues: Claire insists on meeting Ingrid in prison, who puts a zap on her head, which leads directly to tragedy. When Astrid confronts her mother, Ingrid waxes instructive: “Loneliness is the human condition. Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you.” Oi. Thank goodness that Astrid’s next foster placement is not blond, but the dark-haired Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a robust Russian émigré who buys and sells used clothing, including Astrid’s. Astrid toughens up, dyes her hair anti-mom black, gets multiple piercings, and dresses like she’s auditioning for a goth-girl part on Buffy. She must be truly independent now, as she’s finally acting out in a fashion that truly annoys her all-powerful mother.
Amid all this emotional twirling, Lohman comports herself well, especially in the company of her scene-chewing elders. But the film gets in her way, repeatedly. As much as Fitch’s novel evidently moved its readers (and I’m not one of them), Kosminsky’s White Oleander, adapted by Mary Agnes Donoghue (best known for adapting Beaches), seems stuck in first gear, grinding through a series of very “safe” clichés.