Review: White Oleander (Kosminsky, 2002)

Still from the movie White Oleander

My husband was gone this weekend for a bachelor party, so I purposely chose a movie to watch what I thought he would have little or no interest in. Though he’s more open-minded than most, there is a certain class of female-oriented films that, when mentioned, will cause his eyes to take on a vacant gaze.

Digression: The novel White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, was published in 1999, at the height of Oprah’s Book Club‘s influence (on me, at least) and a solid two years before the Jonathan Franzen controversy. Whatever you have to say about Jonathan Franzen (and I’m one of those with plenty to say), it was true that at the time Oprah’s club tended to pick, well, those female-oriented books of the type to cause my husband’s eyes to glaze over. They were not quite as formulaic as Korean soap operas, but, after reading a good dozen of them from those early, pre-Franzen years, one could discern a certain thematic consistency: a woman (typically young, sometimes a girl) overcoming extraordinary trials or trauma (early abandonment, sexual abuse, intolerance), often in a rural or Southern setting, the story climaxing in some grave but cathartic experience and then ending on a bittersweet but undeniably uplifting note. The books I devoured in late high school are a blur to me, so I couldn’t remember if I had actually read White Oleander or just seen its cover and title so many times that it had become as familiar to me as if I had. Regardless, I felt compelled by nostalgia to watch the movie.

The names that will strike you on glancing at the movie poster are Robin Wright Penn (yes, still Penn back then), Michelle Pfeiffer, and Renee Zellweger, but the central actress is actually little known Alison Lohman (reminiscent of Evan Rachel Wood in Thirteen), who emerged from obscurity to give a competent performance and whose career has since plateaued. The film begins with a deliberately whimsical voiceover from the protagonist, Astrid, attributing her mother’s strange behavior to the Santa Ana winds. It then follows Astrid through many transformations as she winnows her way through the foster care system, all the while maintaining a complicated and taut relationship with her fierce and controlling mother (Pfeiffer).

I imagine this movie is satisfying to me in the way that certain formulaic action films are satisfying to others. There is some comfort in knowing what to expect and then seeing your expectations adeptly met. Every character is a “type,” but it’s still fun to watch the types mingle. I even shed a tear or two, as I was meant to, and as I wanted to. And then afterwards I felt thoughtful and cleansed. All in all, White Oleander is good for a meander down blossom-filled Memory Lane. No harm done and not an unpleasant way to occupy a husband-less weekend.

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