Genre:  Drama

Rating:  PG-13

Release Date:  October 11, 2002

Actors:  Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, Billy Connolly, Svetlana Efremova, Patrick Fugit, Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle

Director:  Peter Kosminsky

Special Notes:  Producer Hunt Lowry recently produced The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the inspirational coming-of-age love story, A Walk to Remember.  Among his additional producing credits are Disney's The Kid, Instinct, A Time to Kill, First Knight, and others.

Plot:  When Ingrid (Pfeiffer) kills her boyfriend for betraying her, she's arrested and leaves a sweet and vulnerable 15-year-old daughter, Astrid (Lohman), to fend for herself in a world she's not ready to face.  As Astrid is shuttled through a series of foster homes and tries to make the best of a horrible situation, she learns some hard lessons about what life is really like.  Her first foster mother is a religious fanatic (Wright Penn) who forces Astrid to get baptized and accept Jesus while living a lowly life with her boyfriend.  When she suspects Astrid of having sex with him, she shoots her in a fit of jealous rage and Astrid is sent away.  Her second "mother" ends up being an actress (Zellweger) whose producer husband (Wyle) leaves her for another woman and again, Astrid faces the cruelty of the causalities of life.  When Astrid is sent to a home, she meets Paul (Fugit) an artist who appreciates her artistic ability and accepts her just the way she is.  Meanwhile from behind bars, Ingrid's influence and destructive manipulation of her daughter continually affects Astrid and the people she lives with.  Eventually Ingrid has to face who and what she has become, and Astrid has to learn to forgive in order to survive and gain freedom from her mother and the past.

Good:  Based on the best-selling novel by Janet Fitch (Oprah selected for her book-of-the month pick), White Oleander is a story that follows a young woman's journey from innocence lost, to hardship, maturity and true independence from a manipulative and oppressive mother.  The title is taken from the beautiful Oleander flower that protects itself by making its own poison.  In essence, it's a metaphor for this story.  Pfeiffer is brilliant in a role that departs from the typical characters she usually plays.  Her beauty mixed with an evil heart is chillingly haunting and sets an adequate tone for this movie.  Lohman does an excellent job of portraying a young girl who, in her artistic way, tries to "blend in" with the colors of the new worlds she's exposed to and, like a flower, blossoms throughout the movie until the end.  Even if I didn't like the movie, I can't argue that Lohman and Pfeiffer deliver Oscar worthy performances.

Bad:  If you are eager to see a depressing movie filled with dysfunctional people, extreme circumstances and a cast full of characters that possess the worst human behavior possible, then you will enjoy this movie.  From beginning to end we watch an innocent girl exposed to murder, adultery, a live-in lover who has sex with his foster child, a woman who commits suicide because her husband leaves her for another woman, a gypsy who uses foster kids to scavenge for goods to sell at flea markets and all the while she's taunted and tortured by a mother who tries to manipulate and control her daughter from prison.  I was offended at the cliché portrayal of the "religious" Starr who belongs to the Assembly of God church and forces Astrid to be baptized and accept Jesus while role-modeling a lifestyle that is anything BUT Christian living.  Even though these scenes are played with an obvious wink to the audience, it is still painful to watch.  Seeing Astrid, who desperately needs acceptance, love and direction, accept Christ (believing He can help her), then have that faith destroyed by her mother's comments and the lifestyle of her foster mother, sets the stage for the rest of the movie, because she never finds that peace or happiness again.  Hollywood loves to poke fun at over-the-top Christians because it undermines the true message of salvation every time, and I find it sad that many watching this movie will probably think that's how all Christians behave.  Aside from the fact that this young girl has rejected anything spiritual in her life that could give her direction, in the end, we see her living with her boyfriend and still declaring her love for her mother.  So I guess the payoff is that she comes to terms with her heinous past.  There's plenty of obscenity all the way through this movie as well as religious profanity.  Flashbacks to the boyfriend's scene of death are briefly shown but we never see a body or how it is done.  At her first home, Astrid can hear her foster mother and boyfriend engaged in sex at night.  It is implied that Astrid gives the boyfriend permission to have sex with her, and the two carry on secretly (but we never see anything).  Astrid gets into a mild fight with a girl at the home and threatens to slit her throat.  We see a woman overdose on pills and die (in bed) next to Astrid.

Advisory:  Mothers PLEASE DON'T take your daughters to this movie thinking it will be a great mother/daughter flick to watch with each other--it's not that kind of warm and fuzzy movie! 

Bottom Line:  Critics are applauding this film and singing its praises because it deals with heavy issues.  But I was saddened by the dysfunctional characters and twisted parenting that sadly rings a little too real in today's Godless culture.  This is a sad look at a single mom raising her daughter with every horrendous situation thrown into the plot that you could think of.  There's no way to walk away from this movie without a heavy heart, and that's why I didn't enjoy this movie.  I also didn't appreciate the fact that after going through the long journey of each bleak situation, in the end, there are still pieces of the story missing that never get resolved or answered.