White Oleander (2002)

It’s a shame Alison Lohman has never done a lot of work for Hollywood over the years. While she has remained consistent through television and film roles, she hasn’t really ever broken out as a highly publicized cinematic artist. Like Sarah Polley and Vera Farmiga, she’s always remained on the fringe, but never quite broke out as someone overly saturated. Perhaps that’s a good thiing. Whenever Alison Lohman decides to commit to a film she’s a force to be reckoned with. One of the better dramatic suspense films of 2002 that came out at a time where other films were stealing its thunder was indeed “White Oleander.”

It just doesn’t get a lot of credit for bringing the A game for drama and thrills as it should, and that’s an equal shame. “White Oleander” is one of the finest dramas of the early aughts, and delivers in the range of cast and involving story. The force that keeps the film afloat though is Alison Lohman. While many speculated that Michelle Pfeiffer might have won an Oscar for her role as overbearing manipulative mother Ingrid in the film, the true force and passion is Alison Lohman.

Lohman plays Astrid, a young girl who has been under the influence of her consistently man hating mother whose goal is to mold her daughter in to her own facsimile of herself, while also controlling her every thought and action. Ingrid is in the throws of another tumultuous relationship with a man who has cheated on her, and in retaliation she poisons him with White Oleander. When Ingrid is arrested and sent to jail, Astrid is basically forced to fend for herself in the foster care system, and though that learns of a series of lives she could have and may have had without her mother. Through most of her ordeals, she learns about the impact love has on people. Not just in the parental manner, but in the facade people place for themselves through the doldrums of the ideal relationship. Renee Zellweger is a particularly gripping player here as an actress who adopts Astrid and seems to be interested in a relationship that’s more sisterly. What Astrid discovers is that this seemingly normal actress with a dapper house and incredible luxuries is very unhappy, and the key player in her own act involving a relationship with an unhappy film director (as played by Noah Wylie) who doesn’t so much like her as he does put up with her.

Whenever Ingrid rears her head in the relationships of her daughter Astrid, things go awry, and Astrid constantly finds herself on the tail end of misery and misconceptions of human relationships while tasked with the obligation to visit her mother every time she’s beckoned. Astrid is very much the lost follower who is in search of an identity and direction, and once Ingrid is taken out of her life, the demand for individuality becomes more pressing. Especially now that Ingrid seeks to control her daughter behind the prison walls. Her sabotage of the relationship between Astrid and Zellweger’s character Claire is tragic but an eye opener. In many ways Ingrid may have looked out for Astrid, but in other ways she broke the fragility of the relationship.

Astrid endures a lot of hard ships throughout the duration of “White Oleander” including her experiences in a group home involving a small band of girls who seek to make her life miserable along with her experiences with a local artist named Paul. Astrid is a girl who possibly may have always been free, but with her mother’s clinging and manipulative nature she will never experience the joy. Even when confronting her in the finale demanding her freedom from her mother’s emotional betrayal, Astrid may never actually be her own person. She merely lives by the images she’s been told to uphold by society and through that struggle may grow as a person.

Lohman gives an excellent performance, while Michelle Pfeiffer is definitely the type of woman who has the brilliance to really break out as someone who can change lives, but is more at home toying with the lives of the people she actually loves, thanks to her insecurity. There’s a great parade of actors who provide supporting powerful roles including Robin Wright, as a dysfunctional woman living her life by trite conventions to form some sense of normality, Cole Hauser as Astrid’s potential lover, the great Billy Connolly. “White Oleander” is a very gripping and often compelling bit of soul searching for a lost girl looking for an identity, and it’s one of Alison Lohman’s best.