A White Oleander Rewatch

I originally saw this shortly after reading the book in 2004. It’s one of those early 2000s films
that centres on emotional isolation and features a melancholic teenager. On this watch, I found
myself a bit less interested in Astrid’s life, though I still felt pity for her.

What sticks out the most to me this time, after having forgotten nearly all of this movie, is the
cinematography, as well as choice of angles and colours, most of which I don’t find actively
helps the film convey the blue mood it’s aiming for. I think the filmmakers’ intentionality takes
too much away from the effectiveness of how cold this film feels. Even something neutral could
help convey the stark reality of Astrid’s surroundings because of how well acted these
characters are.

The story is about a teenage girl whose mother is arrested for the murder of her boyfriend and is put in foster care. Her experiences after this are varied, tragic, and only serve to remind her of how what you love will inevitably hurt you. She comes out of these experiences bruised and colder, but doesn’t choose to isolate herself despite wanting to.

Thinking about the story arc, I expected a less glamourized and more fleshed out portrayal of foster care and familial abandonment. Pfeiffer does a great job with the hard bitterness involved in the role, but it feels strained. Robin Wright’s performance outshines everyone else’s – she’s believable, in shambles.

Under the surface, we see Astrid in pain and in need of guidance, internalizing much of her
experiences. However, we don’t really get to know Astrid. This is in part because she doesn’t
know herself and is in the process of self discovery like any teen, but also because she hides
much of herself away. I like the choice to show her as the reality of many young people, highly
impressionable, longing for acceptance and connection. At the same time Astrid maintains
focus on artistic self-expression, her anchor to the world inside her.

Astrid goes through various stages of grief through-out the film and only begins acting out
near the end, and even then it’s another way of absorbing and re-enacting her environments.
She’s subtle, in denial and hopeful when she’s in her first foster home, but it’s evident that by
the end she’s bitter and losing trust. The way she rebounds after each traumatic experience is
admirable, albeit a little unrealistic.

The film ends on a somewhat positive note, which feels out of alignment with the trajectory
she’s been on since the start of the film. However, it’s not entirely unbelievable. Her natural
disposition is one of trust, interest in connection, and she finds her way back to this. Her
traumas aren’t over, as we can see by the art she makes, she just finds a healthier way to channel them.

Zena Lisa Virani

Zena is a lifelong writer living in Ottawa. She got her BA in English Literature at the ripe old age of 38 at Concordia University, Montreal. Zena writes poetry, short and flash fiction, essays, 'zines and even songs. Her favourite kind of writing plays with convention and expectation, the way writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Zola Neale Hurston do. Zena runs a blog on her website Zena's Library, which is dedicated to movie and book reviews, and hopes to expand the project in the future to feature other writers. She's also working on a memoir.