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Film / White Oleander

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White Oleander is 2002 drama film directed by Peter Kosminsky. The cast features Alison Lohman in the central role of Astrid Magnussen, and Michelle Pfeiffer as her temperamental mother Ingrid, alongside Robin Wright, Renée Zellweger and Billy Connolly in supporting roles.

The screenplay was adapted from the novel of the same name by Janet Fitch, which was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999.

Young Astrid is very close to her single mother Ingrid, whose free-spirited, semi-man-hating lifestyle is all well and good until she meets and eventually poisons Barry Kolker (Connolly) after he romances and then spurns her. When Ingrid is sent to prison for the murder, Astrid is left bouncing around foster care and increasingly wondering if her mother's parenting was really very good in the first place. She lives with all different types of families, from born-again Christians to posh to a youth detention center. As she grows older, she recognizes how her mother's manipulative personality has caused her most all of her life's grief. She is forced to really soul search and is left with more questions than answers, including why her mother committed the murder.

This work contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents.
    • Ingrid qualifies as emotionally abusive. The foster parents also qualify for physical abuse. Arguably, Astrid also suffers sexual abuse at Ray's hands, though he is not technically her foster parent (just her foster mother's boyfriend) and Astrid is consenting though underage.
    • Claire, having very low self-esteem, no personal boundaries and being co-dependent, probably comes from an abusive home as well. Also, Starr breaks Davey’s arm when she is too drunk, though she regrets it later. If you think about it, this book is about all sorts of abusive parents and how not to raise a child.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: As noted below, Claire goes from a brunette in the novel to blonde in the film.
    • During one of Claire's conversations with Astrid, it's implied that Claire actually is a brunette but dyed her hair blonde to make it easier to get roles in Hollywood. It didn't work.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Claire's huband is named Mark rather than Ron in the film.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Ray, Starr's boyfriend, goes from a graying, overweight, 50-ish carpenter who is missing three fingers in the novel to a 30-ish (at most) rugged pretty boy played by Cole Hauser in the film. Paul Trout might be this as well, as he is explicitly stated to be ugly in the novel, and he's played by Patrick Fugit in the film.
  • Adapted Out: Astrid and Ingrid's upstairs neighbor, an agoraphobic alcoholic named Michael. The Turlock and Ramos foster homes and associated characters like the prostitute Olivia Johnstone and the social worker Joan Peeler.
  • Adults Are Useless: As the book is written from Astrid’s point of view, who is a teenager when the story starts, one can be surprised at how little love, help and care she gets from all the adults around her. She often ends up caring for other people or gets exploited while being in great need of care herself. She has to watch over her mother and Claire when they get too depressed, is forced to babysit and perform all sorts of menial tasks at one of the foster homes while recovering from a bullet wound, is intentionally starved by a woman who only takes in foster kids for money. And when Astrid gets to the youth detention center we realize her story may be just a tip of an iceberg...
  • Alcoholic Parent: Starr is this to her biological children and an Alcoholic Foster Parent to Astrid and the other kids she fosters. She starts out in recovery but goes off the rails when she thinks Astrid is sleeping with Ray. Claire shows shades of this in the novel toward the end of her appearance since a bottle of sherry never leaves her side during Astrid's final weeks there.
  • All Abusers Are Male: Averted, Astrid is abused by more women than men.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Pretty much why Astrid slept with Sergei in the novel. She grows out of it.
  • Anti-Hero: It could be argued that Astrid is Pragmatic.
  • Asshole Victim: Barry did lead Ingrid on, to the point she and her daughter believed the relationship to be lasting.
  • Birds of a Feather: Astrid and Paul, both being orphans with extremely hard lives as well as incredibly gifted artists. When Astrid contemplates joining her mother after the latter is released from prison, she feels that she can’t leave Paul as he is not only her boyfriend, he is her on so many levels.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing.
    • Astrid notices that Ingrid likes to present herself either as a hero or a victim in her poems but never a culprit.
    • Ingrid also pretends to be friendly and sympathetic towards Claire when they meet in person, while also looking for an opportunity to hurt her, partly out of jealousy and also for the fun of it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Astrid gets her answers from Ingrid and begins living her own life, but is dirt poor and has nothing to her name save the suitcases she's constructed as memorials to her time with her mother and her time in foster care. More of a Downer Ending in the novel, as Astrid's narration toward the end implies she has learned nothing from any of it.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Kind of, in Astrid's final foster home. She's the blonde, Yvonne is a brunette, and Nikki has dyed magenta hair.
  • Break the Cutie: Astrid.
  • Calling The Old Lady Out: Astrid does this during her final visit to Ingrid in prison.
  • Con Man: Sergei is this in the novel, presumably in the film as well, though it's never mentioned.
  • Coming of Age Story
  • Department of Child Disservices: Both the book and film are made of this, though the book goes into more detail.
  • Disappeared Dad: Astrid's father left when she was either six months old (film) or two years old (novel).
  • Domestic Abuser: Ron, Claire’s husband, is a subtle variety. On the outside, he loves her and does his best to provide for their posh lifestyle, though Astrid sees that he is always making all the decisions, emotionally hurts Claire, and later blames it on her, and is implied to be cheating on Claire when on business trips. Astrid states several times that Ron never cared to know the real Claire and only wanted her to play the part of a happy wife without bothering him too much.
  • Driven to Suicide: Claire.
    • Also implied in regards to Ingrid's mother in the novel: there's a throwaway line toward the end about Ingrid's mother drowning in the cow pond when she was thirteen. It's not elaborated on or mentioned in detail, but it's very chilling when you think about it.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Astrid and three/four out of six mothers (Ingrid, Starr, Marvel (book character), and Claire (Film only, in the novel she was brunette and looked like Audrey Hepburn).
  • Extreme Doormat: Claire has no boundaries, cannot say no to a dirty old bum she meets in the street and never defends herself even from her husband Ron, who is disrespectful and condescending towards her and she has every right to be angry. Even Astrid, who loves her, is disgusted with this at some point, though she dearly regrets it later.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The novel has a lot of this, bordering on Bilingual Bonus. Astrid uses several languages in one line, during the scene where she and Nikki go to the museum after dropping acid. Among others, we have:
  • Hands-Off Parenting: What Ingrid practices, as she hates to limit her own freedom in any way. As a result Astrid only felt what it meant to be loved thanks to Claire.
  • Happily Married: What Ron and Claire look like on the outside. In reality, they have a toxic relationship, with severely depressed Claire and her manipulative, always absent husband who clearly doesn’t have a lot of respect for her, neither as a person nor as an actress.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Olivia Johnstone, a woman who lives next door to one of Astrid's foster homes, is this in the novel.
  • Hollywood California: the novel takes place in Los Angeles county.
  • House Wife: Claire doesn’t have a career or even get parts often though she is a talented actress. It is implied that she is too broken and cannot handle the stress, even though she enjoys show business.
  • Inner City School: Several of the schools Astrid attends over the course of the novel are implied to be this, particularly Fairfax High.
  • Karma Houdini: Starr possibly gets away with shooting Astrid in the novel, since she runs off, though both novel and film have elements of a What Happened to the Mouse? situation. In the novel, Amelia Ramos gets away with starving the girls she fosters, though Astrid gets out. Ingrid ultimately gets away with murder in the novel. It's only insinuated she does the same in the film.
  • Married to the Job: What Ron appears to be. He may also be using it as a pretext to cheat on Clair or to just be away without having to deal with Claire’s emotional problems.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: The two college girls who visit Astrid at Rena's believe this about Ingrid. She tells them otherwise.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Part of the reason Astrid confronts Ingrid.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted in the novel when Astrid mentions that she stopped having her period due to being starved by a foster parent. Played straight in the film.
  • Norse Mythology: Astrid and Ingrid mention this a bit in the novel. Since they're Scandinavian, it makes sense.
  • Parental Abandonment: In spades. Astrid's dad is a Disappeared Dad, Ingrid is eventually Astrid's Missing Mom (twice: First when she left Astrid with a babysitter for a year when she was much younger, and the prison stint is the second time), and Astrid's foster mother Claire, the one she admits she loved the most, commits suicide after her husband leaves her.
    • Also implied as part of Ingrid's backstory in the novel: her mother drowned in the cowpond when Ingrid was thirteen in a possible suicide, and while little is mentioned of Ingrid's father, Ingrid tells Astrid that she (Astrid) is lucky not to have a father, so it's possible Ingrid's father may have abandoned her as well, even if it was only in an emotional sense following the death of Ingrid's mother.
  • Parental Neglect: Ingrid to Astrid, culminating with leaving her in the care of a babysitter for a year.
  • Parental Incest: While this doesn't actually happen in the literal sense, in the novel both Astrid and Ingrid repeatedly refer to Astrid's relationship with (significantly) older men as 'laying down for the father.' Make of that what you will.
  • Parents as People: Ingrid. However, she is a darker example.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Ingrid and Barry, till he leaves her and she kills him.
  • Perfect Poison: Averted in the novel. Astrid mentions her mother boiling down a whole bunch of oleanders and other poisonous plants in her quest to kill Barry.
  • Plot Hole: People who only watched the film can be forgiven for not knowing how Ingrid kills Barry or why she needed DMSO.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Upping Astrid's age (presumably due to the Ray subplot) and removing three foster homes: the group home on Crenshaw Boulevard because nothing plot-relevant really happens, The home of Amelia Ramos (presumably because what Amelia does to the girls in the home would have upped the rating) and the Turlocks (presumably because Marvel's racism would have driven the film's rating up, to say nothing of Astrid's drug use, Astrid giving a boy in a park a blowjob in exchange for weed, and Astrid's friendship with a prostitute who lives next door to the Turlocks).
  • Really Gets Around: Ingrid before Barry and prison, though it's portrayed positively and seems like more of a twisted Ethical Slut situation (justified, as it's seen through Astrid's eyes and at that point, Astrid worshiped her mother). Astrid weaves in and out of this through the novel.
  • Resentful Guardian: Ingrid admits she's this to Astrid during Astrid's Calling the Old Man Out scene.
  • Satellite Love Interest: In the novel, Paul Trout is into comics and Astrid, and that's about it, even after she leaves California and lives with him. He's given a little more to do in the film, but not much.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Astrid is arguably a female example, though it's complicated.
  • Spicy Latina: There are a few of these characters throughout the novel, but Yvonne is given the most face-time.
  • Suicide by Pills: How Claire commits suicide after her marital issues and depression prove too much for her to handle.
  • Title Drop: Half-example: In the novel, Astrid frequently mentions her mother boiling down oleanders when she poisoned Barry.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: A Zig-Zagging Trope in regards to Claire.
  • Tough Love: Ingrid is a firm believer in this.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Somewhat of a Justified Trope, since Astrid is in foster care. However, Starr shooting Astrid is a very jarring example- it's never mentioned after Astrid leaves the home (and you think it would be, since y'know, the main character just got shot!, but it's not a large enough incident (in terms of the scope of the novel and film, both of which are pretty vast for their mediums) to constitute Aborted Arc.
    • It's a throwaway line in the novel, but while Astrid is recovering from the shooting in the hospital, a plainclothes police officer says that they got Starr when they caught her sneaking in trying to visit (said she was visiting her sister) and berate Astrid for making up a story about burglars in order to protect Starr when she's not even her real mother. No mention of a trial or sentencing, but she was arrested. Astrid only lied for Davey's (Starr's biological son) sake.