Based on the novel by Janet Fitch, WHITE OLEANDER is a haunting drama for mature audiences. 15-year-old Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman) becomes a remarkable young woman in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. Her beautiful artist mom Ingrid (Michele Pfeiffer) is sent to prison for killing her lover, but continues to maintain control over her daughter. Astrid goes to her first foster home, where stripper turned born-again Christian Starr (Robin Wright Penn) rules the roost and becomes very upset when her live-in boyfriend takes a shine to Astrid. When Astrid goes to live with childless Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger), whose marriage with Mark (Noah Wyle) is on shaky grounds, her heart is broken again. From a passive, shy child to an independent, self-assured young woman, Astrid will not be easily forgotten.
The love-hate mother daughter relationship and Astrid’s journey of self-discovery and independence make WHITE OLEANDER a thought-provoking experience. Ingrid’s need for control of her daughter’s life is chilling. When Astrid agrees to be baptized to please Starr, Ingrid orders her daughter to renounce any religious beliefs and to think for herself. Later, a jealous Ingrid manages to manipulate the one foster parent who genuinely loves Astrid toward self-destruction. Starr presents herself as a born-again Christian, yet shoots Astrid in a drunken rage, has an adulterous relationship, and encourages Astrid to dress like a streetwalker with heavy makeup, black nail polish and lipstick. She quotes scripture one minute, then shouts obscenities and threatens anyone who disagrees with her. Several profanities and obscenities foul the dialogue. Flashbacks of a violent lover smashing his fists through a window, Astrid’s gunshot wound, a suicide and Astrid beaten up by girls in the group home are brief but essential to understanding Astrid’s motives. The real point of WHITE OLEANDER might be to make us more aware of how children become the innocent victims of their parents’ wrongdoing. But obscenities, crude sexual material and negative depiction of Christian character take the bloom off WHITE OLEANDER.