JOY Box Office Alternative: WHITE OLEANDER is the Rarest of Coming-of-Age Dramas

by Frank Calvillo

Box Office Alternative Column

Box Office Alternative is a weekly look into additional/optional choices to the big-budget spectacle opening up at your local movie theater every Friday. Oftentimes, titles will consist of little-known or underappreciated work from the same actor/writer/director/producer of said new release, while at other times, the selection for the week just happens to touch upon the same subject in a unique way. Above all, this is a place to revisit and/or discover forgotten cinematic gems of all kinds.

Joy, the latest collaboration between director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence opens Friday, hoping to lure a good number of audiences suffering Star Wars fatigue into the true story of Joy Mangano, an average woman who made a name for herself as the inventor of the miracle mop, creating an empire that remains unrivaled.

Personally, it’s hard not to get excited about stories featuring characters coming from humble beginnings and various forms of adversity who use such profound experiences to build and shape their own lives.

One of the greatest examples of such a tale (also featuring a strikingly beautiful blonde heroine,) is the intense, yet poetic coming-of-age drama White Oleander.

The film focuses on Southern California teenager Astrid (Alison Lohman), who enjoys an ideal life living with her artist mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). Astrid grows up completely in awe of her mother’s strong spirit, flawless beauty and silently dangerous nature. When Ingrid is arrested and sent to prison for allegedly poisoning her former lover, Astrid is shuffled in and out of an assortment of foster homes, being forced to grow up rather quickly as she tries to outrun her past. No matter how much Astrid tries to change her outward appearance or her way of thinking, however, she finds it almost impossible to escape the grasp the intensely protective Ingrid has over her.

The term “coming-of-age” is a label slapped on a great many films which feature young protagonists on the cusp of adulthood. Oftentimes, such titles can be hopelessly fraught with cliches, rarely capturing anything real about the experience of growing up.

Not only is White Oleander free from any such pitfalls, it may well be one of the most stark and realistic depictions of a young girl having to grow up, and grow up fast. When we first meet Astrid, she is a young girl living in her mother’s loving-but-controlling shadow, from which she is taken and dropped into a series of foster homes, giving her a view of the world which includes violence, thievery, seduction, hypocrisy, death, and ultimately, unconditional love.

Two individuals play key figures in Astrid’s formative years. The first is Starr; a born again christian with a trailer park side to her. With her revealing dresses and endless cleavage, Starr believes in the gospel she preaches, yet never fully embodies it. When she suspects Astrid of betrayal, she shoots the teenager as she tries to run away. By contrast, Astrid’s next foster mother, Claire (Renee Zellweger), is a warm and loving individual, who genuinely cares about Astrid. The first person in her life who doesn’t want anything from her, Claire is also hopelessly fragile and depressed, leading Astrid to realize that Claire needs her more than she needs Claire. It’s simply captivating to watch Astrid interact with these characters and watch her develop and grow as she explores the different aspects of being a woman.

Despite being in prison, Astrid learns the most about being a woman from Ingrid as White Oleander is first and foremost a movie about a mother and a daughter.

Although she’s incarcerated, Ingrid still maintains that strong hold over her daughter which never lets up. It’s interesting to watch Astrid’s prison visits to her mother and see what’s exchanged, especially during the moments when Ingrid feels she may be slipping from her grasp, which she instantly prevents by inserting a poisonous mix of love and manipulation into her daughter. Seeing the image of Ingrid alter right before her daughter’s eyes as she goes from loving role model, to the very embodiment of monstrous, is fascinating. Just as fascinating is watching Astrid’s struggle with how to reconcile her feelings of love, fear and hate towards Ingrid, all the while trying to discover the person she’s meant to be.

While they’re playing women as distinct as is possible, both Wright and Zellweger hone in on their characters’ damaged elements and vulnerabilities and successfully bring them to the forefront. One the male side, Cole Hauser and Noah Wylie (as Starr’s lover and Claire’s husband, respectively) prove unemotional shells to their female counterparts, but Paul Fugit does manage some real tenderness in his portrayal of Paul, another foster kid, who connects with Astrid on a deep emotional level.

But there’s no doubt that the movie belongs to Lohman and Pfeiffer. In what was one of her first film roles, Lohman successfully captured Astrid’s transition from scared naive teen to world weary young woman, making every emotional beat count and ring true. The actress seldom works nowadays, and watching White Oleander makes you realize how much of a loss that is. The actress is superbly paired with Pfeiffer, who has never been better than she is here, playing the manipulative Ingrid. Her role is perhaps the trickiest in White Oleander, and Pfeiffer proves herself more than capable by fine tuning her character’s delicately evil nature and combining it with a genuine warmth and affection. It’s a marvel of a performance, which is so intense that Pfeiffer finds herself dominating scenes she isn’t even in.

A critics movie by design, White Oleander received positive notices from most of the critical media when it was released in the fall of 2002, with much of the praise directed at Pfeiffer in what many described as one of the best performances of the actress’ career. Many had expected Pfeiffer’s work to take her, and the film, all the way to the Oscars. However, in a year which also included the likes of Chicago, The Hours and Adaptation., it seems there was very little room for White Oleander on the awards circuit.

It should be noted that the novel by Janet Fitch on which White Oleander is based first gained fame as an Oprah book club selection. While this may or may not have played a part on how the novel was viewed among elitist readers, the film version of White Oleander has been lucky enough to avoid being dismissed as another “movie of the week” that happened to be released in theaters. Because in spite of the beautiful actresses which bring these characters to life in the sun drenched California trappings, there lies a truly human story underneath, which explores the raw darkness of evil and love.

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