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White Oleander (film)

White Oleander is a 2002 American drama film directed by Peter Kosminsky. The cast stars Alison Lohman in the central role of Astrid Magnussen and Michelle Pfeiffer as her personality-disordered, murderous, manipulative mother, Ingrid, with Robin Wright, Noah Wyle and Renée Zellweger in supporting roles. The screenplay was adapted from Janet Fitch's 1999 novel White Oleander, which was selected for Oprah's Book Club in May 1999.[2]

White Oleander
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Kosminsky
Produced byHunt Lowry
John Wells
Screenplay byMary Agnes Donoghue
Based onWhite Oleander by Janet Fitch
StarringAlison Lohman
Michelle Pfeiffer
Robin Wright
Renée Zellweger
Music byThomas Newman
CinematographyElliot Davis
Edited byChris Ridsdale
Pandora/Gaylord Films
Umbrella Entertainment
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • October 11, 2002 (2002-10-11)
Running time
109 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$16 million
Box office$21 million[1]


Fifteen-year-old Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman) is living in Los Angeles with her mother, the free-spirited artist Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). Since her father left before she was old enough to remember him, Astrid depends heavily upon the care of her passionate but largely self-centered mother.

Ingrid's current relationship with a writer named Barry (Billy Connolly) ends when she discovers he is cheating on her with younger women. Ingrid murders him with a poison made from white oleander. Ingrid is arrested and sentenced to life in prison, leaving Astrid under the care of the state of California.

Astrid is sent to live with foster mother Starr Thomas (Robin Wright), a former stripper who is a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian. They initially interact well, with Astrid being baptised into Starr's church. Ingrid is appalled at Astrid's religious conversion and manipulates Astrid against her foster family. Astrid begins an affair with Starr's live-in boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser), which drives Starr to relapsing. After a loud argument with Ray, she runs into Astrid's room in a drunken rage and shoots her in the shoulder. Starr and Ray both flee the scene; the other children beg Astrid not to tell who shot her, so Astrid pretends she has no clue.

Astrid spends some time recovering in a hospital before being moved to McKinney Children's Center (known as "Mac"). After fighting with some girls, she strikes up a friendship with fellow artist Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit).

Eventually, Astrid is placed in the care of Claire Richards (Renée Zellweger), a former actress, and her producer husband Mark (Noah Wyle). Claire is a fragile but affectionate woman who forms a close bond with Astrid, who finally begins to thrive as a result. One day, Astrid comes home to find a letter from Ingrid to Claire. Claire admits the correspondence has been going on for a while and that Ingrid insists on meeting. During their prison visitation meeting, a jealous Ingrid exploits Claire's low self-esteem and suspicions over Mark's fidelity, much to Astrid's outrage. Claire's depression worsens; during a bad fight with Mark, she agrees to send Astrid back to try and save her marriage. Astrid begs Claire not to send her away. Claire seems to recant, then unexpectedly commits suicide later that night, devastating Astrid.

Astrid visits Ingrid in prison to inform her of Claire's death, and that she was returned to Mac. Blaming Ingrid for Claire's suicide, Astrid announces she will never visit her again. In Mac, Paul tells Astrid that when he turns 18 soon he will move to New York. He asks Astrid to accompany him but she coldly refuses.

Astrid passes up better foster parent candidates and chooses to live with a Russian immigrant, Rena Gruschenko (Svetlana Efremova), who treats her foster children as cheap laborers for her swap meet business. During her time with Rena, she becomes colder and colder, with her outward appearance matching her inside demeanor. She is approached by her mother's attorney Susan Vallares (Kali Rocha), a woman taken in by her mother's charm. Susan offers Astrid anything she wants in exchange for lying for her mother in court, since her mother has benefactors. Astrid refuses; Rena tells her that she's stupid to turn down money. Rena then offers to make Astrid an equal partner in their business, since Astrid has nowhere better to go. When Astrid balks at the idea, Rena encourages her to use her mother like her mother wants to use her.

Astrid visits Ingrid one final time in prison, astonishing her with her appearance. She is no longer blond, but has black hair, harsh makeup, and dark clothes. Realizing she has control over her mother for once in her life, Astrid demands answers about her past in exchange for testifying that Barry committed suicide. Astrid hammers her with questions about Barry, her father, Claire, and a mysterious woman named Annie whom Astrid vaguely recalls from her toddler years. Ingrid admits that Annie was a neighbor with whom she left Astrid for over a year in order to continue living her self-obsessed lifestyle. Ingrid further admits that Astrid's father came looking for her when she was 8, but Ingrid turned him away for leaving them 7 years before. Astrid is devastated by these revelations. Ingrid claims she would take all she has done back, but when Astrid begs her to not make her testify, she refuses.

Astrid goes to a comic book shop looking for letters from Paul. He soon shows up by bus in Los Angeles and the two renew their relationship. He accompanies her to her mother's trial as she waits to testify. The courtroom lets out and a curious Astrid goes to see what is going on. She questions Susan, and finds out that Susan was instructed by Ingrid to leave Astrid alone during the trial. Ingrid spots Astrid in the courtroom and they stare at one another as she is led away. Gutted, Astrid stares out the window as her mother is taken back to the bus to return to prison. Paul asks what happened, and she exhales that her mother finally let her go.

Two years later, a once-again-blond Astrid has created a life in New York City with Paul. She is seen tending to her art; dioramas in suitcases depicting all she has been through. As she passes them, she closes each, stating she will never visit the horrors they contain again. Pausing at the final suitcase depicting Ingrid, Astrid reflects in voiceover that no matter how flawed Ingrid is, she knows her mother loves her.



Barbra Streisand turned down offers to direct the film and play Ingrid Magnussen.

Alison Lohman wore a wig throughout filming because she had just finished playing a cancer patient in deleted scenes from the film Dragonfly (2002).

The film clip Claire (Renée Zellweger) shows Astrid as an example of her acting career is of Zellweger's own early performance in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994).



White Oleander holds a rating of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes[3] and a score of 61 on Metacritic,[4] indicating generally favorable reviews.

Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, called it a "rich, turbulent adaptation," and described the performances as "superbly acted from top to bottom." Comparing it to other films on the same theme – Anywhere but Here (1999), Tumbleweeds (1999), and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) – Holden found White Oleander to be the only one to show "how children instinctively absorb their parents' attitudes and personalities."[5] Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, "White Oleander tells a sad story of crime and foster homes, and makes it look like the movie version. The film takes the materials of human tragedy and dresses them in lovely costumes, Southern California locations and star power."[6] Andrew Sarris, writing for The Observer, named it as a runner-up on his list of the ten best English-language films of 2002.[7]

The performances were widely acclaimed, particularly those of Pfeiffer and Lohman. The New York Times called Pfeiffer's role the "most complex screen performance of her career... at once irresistible and diabolical",[5] while the Los Angeles Times singled out her "riveting, impeccable performance in what is literally and figuratively a killer role."[8] Variety described it as a "daring, unsympathetic performance".[9] Lohman's work was variously described as "the year's most auspicious screen acting début",[5] a "tremendously weighty and extended role... [taken on] with great confidence"[9] and an "awesome performance".[6]


Pfeiffer won the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress and the San Diego Film Critics Society Award for Best Supporting Actress, and received a nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.[10]

Zellweger was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture.[10]

Lohman was nominated for the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Newcomer.[10]

Marc Donato won a Young Artist Award in the category of Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actor.[10]

Home mediaEdit

Umbrella Entertainment released White Oleander on DVD in December 2011. The DVD is compatible with all region codes and includes special features such as the theatrical trailer, interviews with the cast and creators, behind the scenes footage and audio commentary with Peter Kosminsky, John Wells and Janet Fitch.[11]


  1. ^ "White Oleander (2002) - Box Office". Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  2. ^ "White Oleander by Janet Fitch". Oprah's Book Club.
  3. ^ "White Oleander Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  4. ^ "White Oleander reviews at". Metacritic. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c Holden, Stephen (October 11, 2002). "Movie Review – 'White Oleander' – Slowly, a Princess Turns Into an Urchin". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (October 11, 2002). "White Oleander". Chicago Sun Times.
  7. ^ Sarris, Andrew. "The Best Films of 2002, and a few Honorable Mentions". The Observer. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  8. ^ Turan, Kenneth (October 11, 2002). "'White Oleander' – MOVIE REVIEW". Los Angeles Times.
  9. ^ a b Koehler, Robert (September 7, 2002). "White Oleander Movie Review". Variety.
  10. ^ a b c d "White Oleander (2002) – Awards". Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  11. ^ "White Oleander". Umbrella Entertainment. Retrieved May 21, 2013.

External linksEdit