tek's rating:

White Oleander (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers.

This is based on a book, which I haven't read. I gotta say up front, at times it is a very hard film to watch, but it's good. The film is narrated by the main character, 15-year-old Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman). She lives with her artist mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer; I could totally believe she and Lohman share genes). Before long, Ingrid murders her lover, Barry (Billy Connolly), who was cheating on her. She is sentenced to life in prison, so Astrid is sent by child services to live with a foster mother named Starr Thomas (Robin Wright Penn). Starr has a rebellious daughter named Carolee, who hates her mother. And there are also a couple of boys, I think, though the only one with much of a role at all is Davey. I'm not clear on whether either boy is actually Starr's child, or if they're in foster care, like Astrid. Anyway, Starr is a former stripper, recovering alcoholic, and now a born-again Christian. And she has a boyfriend named Ray. It's the kind of situation where I think the viewer has to wonder (at least I always do, with situations like this in the movies) if the boyfriend may end up molesting the girl, but of course I always give the guy the benefit of the doubt. And he seemed like a nice guy. Actually, a bit more likable than Starr. At first Astrid seems to get along with everyone, but before long, Starr begins to suspect Astrid might try to steal Ray, which of course Astrid denies. But Starr's suspicion makes her start drinking again, which of course only stokes her suspicion even more. Meanwhile... there are a couple of scenes that seem to imply that, despite her denials, Astrid might actually have done something with Ray. I don't feel that anything in the movie makes it undeniably clear that they did anything, though.

Anyway, it should be clear to the viewer from the very beginning, that Ingrid was a pretty unfit mother. Pretty much the one good thing she did was inspire Astrid to become an artist as well; and clearly, Astrid is very gifted at drawing. But other than that, Ingrid's attitudes about pretty much everything in life seem pretty screwed up. Most notably the fact that she feels completely justified in having killed Barry. There's also the fact that she supposedly raised Astrid to think for herself, but as Astrid points out, she actually raised her think like her mother. There's also some religious stuff... Starr is the kind of Christian I don't really like, and not just because of her hypocrisy, but even if she did live a truly Christian lifestyle (which she doesn't), she's a bit too vocal about it. Not that I think Christians should hide their faith, by any means, but you shouldn't be constantly preaching or proselytizing. But at least she's better than Ingrid, who is blatantly offended by the very idea of Christianity, and hates the idea that Astrid would even consider becoming religious at all. (I do think the fact that Astrid at one point said some priest or whatever had said thinking for yourself is evil tends to make it seem like Ingrid had a point, but most real Christians wouldn't likely suggest such a thing.)

But anyway... I've digressed long enough. Whether or not Starr's jealousy was well-founded, it caused her to shoot Astrid. Of course, Astrid wasn't too badly wounded, and when she recovered, she was sent to a group foster home (which struck me as being somewhere between an orphanage and juvenile hall). There were some violent kids there, who didn't like Astrid, though we don't really get to see if that was justified or not. But Astrid... is quite capable of dealing with it. Meanwhile, she meets a fellow artist there, named Paul Trout, and the two of them soon become friends. There's a scene where they're sitting in a park together, both of them just drawing what they see, the people and all. I really liked that scene... it made me think it'd be neat to meet a woman who's a fellow writer, and go out somewhere together to sit and each write a story, on the spot, then trade and read them to see what one another came up with.

But she soon gets sent to a new foster home, to live with an actress named Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger), and her husband Mark (Noah Wyle), whose work requires him to spend much of his time away from home. They're nice enough, but... some trouble ensues, which I don't want to be specific about. But it means Astrid has to return to the group home again, where she basically ignores Paul. And she chooses to eventually leave with a new foster mother named Rena, and I don't want to spoil anything about that, either. Anyway, I think everything up to this point is set over a period of three years, so eventually she turns 18.

Um... I should mention that throughout the film, there are occasional flashbacks to events leading up to Barry's murder. And Astrid occasionally visits her mother in prison. And... I dunno, I guess there's eventually some sort of... catharsis, or whatever. And a happier ending than might be expected. But until then, there's mostly a lot of emotional suffering. I'm leaving out a lot of details, actually. But I want to say it's a better movie than my rating gives it credit for. Definitely not something I ever want to see again, but... Astrid was a really good character, and all the actors were good. And I don't know what else to say.

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