White Oleander (film)

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White Oleander
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Peter Kosminsky
Produced by Hunt Lowry
John Wells
Screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue
Based on White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Starring Alison Lohman
Michelle Pfeiffer
Robin Wright Penn
Renée Zellweger
Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography Elliot Davis
Edited by Chris Ridsdale
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Umbrella Entertainment
Release dates
  • October 11, 2002 (2002-10-11)
Running time
109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $16,000,000
Box office $21,672,284[1]

White Oleander is a 2002 American 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 Renée Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn, Billy Connolly and Patrick Fugit 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.


The narrator, Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman), is the 15-year-old daughter of a free-spirited artist, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). Since her father left before she was old enough to remember him, Astrid depends heavily upon the maternal care of her passionate but largely self-centered mother. Ingrid's current relationship, with a vulgar man named Barry (Billy Connolly), comes to an end when he is discovered to be cheating on her with younger women, and her emotional response leads her to murder him using poison (white oleander). Ingrid is arrested and sentenced to life in prison, leaving Astrid without parents and in need of foster care.

Astrid is sent to live with foster mother Starr Thomas (Robin Wright Penn), a former stripper and born-again Christian who is a recovering alcoholic. Though they initially interact well, Starr correctly deduces that Astrid is having an affair with her live-in boyfriend and, after a loud argument with him, She storms into Astrid's room in a blind and jealous rage and shoots her. After spending some time in a violent group foster home where she strikes up a relationship with a fellow artist Paul Trout, Astrid is then given into the care of former actress Claire Richards (Renée Zellweger), a sweet and affectionate woman who initially provides stability for Astrid. Upon accompanying Astrid to see her mother in prison, however, Claire's weaknesses are seized upon by the jealous Ingrid, and Claire ultimately commits suicide by overdosing on pills and alcohol, suspecting that her husband Mark (Noah Wyle) is having an affair and is going to divorce her. Astrid then chooses to live with a Russian immigrant, Rena (Svetlana Efremova), who treats her foster children as cheap laborers.

As Ingrid's appeal for release approaches, she tries to bribe Astrid to testify that she did not murder Barry. In a newfound position of power, Astrid demands answers from her mother as to their past, leading to the revelation that Ingrid abandoned Astrid with a babysitter called Annie for over a year when she was younger, a move that clearly gave rise to feelings of abandonment in Astrid's childhood. Eventually, having reluctantly agreed to testify, Astrid learns from her mother's lawyer that the appeal has been denied, because Ingrid refused to let Astrid's testimony be heard, a final act of love from a difficult but ultimately loving mother. Newly emancipated, Astrid forges a new adult life in New York with Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit), the young man she met in the group home.



Barbra Streisand turned down the offers to direct the film and play the role of Ingrid Magnussen.[2]

Alison Lohman wore a wig throughout filming, having just finished playing a cancer patient in deleted scenes from the film Dragonfly (2002).[2]

The film clip Claire (Renée Zellweger) shows Astrid as an excerpt of her earlier acting career is actually taken from one of Zellweger's own early performances, in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994).[2]

Differences between novel and screenplay[edit]

There are numerous differences between the book and movie.

  • Astrid is twelve years old at the beginning of the novel; in the film, she is fifteen.
  • Ingrid is a poet in the novel, but a photographer in the film.
  • Ingrid is released from jail after winning her appeal in the novel; in the film she remains imprisoned. In both cases, she chooses to spare her daughter from testifying.
  • In between living with Starr and Claire, Astrid experiences two more foster homes in the novel, staying with the Turlocks and Olivia Johnstone, and then with Amelia Ramos; in the film, these characters are eliminated, so Astrid is never attacked by dogs and does not live with scars on her arms and face, nor is she forcefully starved.
  • In the novel, Ray is portrayed as being nearly fifty years old; in the film, he appears to be in his thirties.
  • In the novel, Claire's husband is named Ron; in the movie he is renamed Mark.
  • In the novel, Astrid becomes highly attached to Barry, to the extent that she dreams of Ingrid's marrying him and Barry's asking Astrid to call him "Dad". None of this is shown in the film; Ingrid's relationship with Barry is heavily condensed in the movie, and Astrid's emotional attachment to Barry is only hinted at when she tells Davey that she could have saved his life but didn't. The movie also condenses the extent and length of Ingrid's relationship with Barry, to the point that it seems they only ever had one date.
  • In the novel, Astrid and Paul move to Berlin, Germany, while in the movie they move to New York.
  • In the novel, Astrid has an affair with Rena's boyfriend, Sergei, while in the movie he is not even mentioned.
  • In the novel, Astrid remembers Annie – her former babysitter – after taking acid with her friend Niki, while in the movie, Astrid remembers Annie on her own, and is often seen drawing her, which Yvonne comments on.
  • In the novel, Astrid is sent to MacLaren Children's Center, while in the movie it is simply McKinney Hall.
  • In the novel, Astrid tracks down her father, who is disappointingly ordinary despite his creative talents. The movie makes no mention of this.



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

Stephen Holden in 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, Tumbleweeds and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – Holden found White Oleander to be the only one to show "how children instinctively absorb their parents' attitudes and personalities."[5] Roger Ebert in 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 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 Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison 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]


Michelle 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]

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

Alison 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 Media[edit]

White Oleander was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment 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". imdb.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  2. ^ a b c "White Oleander (2002) – Trivia". imdb.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  3. ^ "White Oleander Movie Reviews, Pictures". rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  4. ^ "White Oleander reviews at Metacritic.com". metacritic.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  5. ^ a b c Holden, Stephen (October 11, 2002). "Movie Review – 'White Oleander' – Slowly, a Princess Turns Into an Urchin". nytimes.com. 
  6. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (October 11, 2002). "White Oleander :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". rogerebert.suntimes.com. 
  7. ^ Sarris, Andrew. "The Best Films of 2002, and a few Honorable Mentions". observer.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  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.com. 
  10. ^ a b c d "White Oleander (2002) – Awards". imdb.com. Retrieved 2010-04-05. 
  11. ^ "Umbrella Entertainment". Retrieved 21 May 2013. 

External links[edit]