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
Renée Zellweger
Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography Elliot Davis
Edited by Chris Ridsdale
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Pandora/Gaylord Films
Umbrella Entertainment
Release date
  • 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 stars Alison Lohman in the central role of Astrid Magnussen and Michelle Pfeiffer as her temperamental 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]


The narrator, Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman), is the 15-year-old daughter of 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 vulgar man 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 in foster care, in the hands of many foster parents.

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. However, Ingrid is appalled at her conversion and subtly manipulates Astrid against her foster family. Astrid begins an affair with Starr's live in boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser), which Starr eventually realises and begins drinking again. After a loud argument with him, she runs into Astrid's room in a drunken rage and shoots her.

Astrid spends some time recovering in hospital before being moved to a violent group foster home. She strikes up a relationship with fellow artist Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit), though Ingrid abuses Paul's artistic talent and Astrid's desire to make friends. Eventually, Astrid is placed in the care of Claire Richards (Renée Zellweger), a former actress. Claire is a sweet, affectionate woman who provides stability for Astrid.

Claire accompanies Astrid on a visit to Ingrid in prison. The jealous Ingrid exploits Claire's weaknesses, and upsets Claire and her daughter. Claire already suspects her husband Mark (Noah Wyle) of having an affair and planning to divorce her. Claire commits suicide, and a devastated Astrid is returned to the group home. Paul is still there but when he reaches eighteen, he moves to New York. He asks Astrid to accompany him but she refuses.

Astrid passes up better foster parent candidates and 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. Astrid realizes thaat she is in a position of power over Ingrid and demands answers about her past. Ingrid admits she abandoned Astrid with a babysitter, called Annie, for over a year when she was younger. Astrid realizes this caused her feelings of abandonment.

Astrid reluctantly agrees to testify, but her mother's lawyer tells her the appeal was denied; Ingrid had refused to let the lawyer call Astrid to testify. Ingrid has finally denied her own selfishness to commit an act of love for her daughter. Newly emancipated, Astrid forges a new life in New York City with Paul.



Barbra Streisand turned down offers to direct the film and play Ingrid Magnussen.[3]

Alison Lohman wore a wig throughout filming because she had just finished playing a cancer patient in deleted scenes from the film Dragonfly (2002).[3]

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).[3]

Differences between novel and screenplay[edit]

There are a number of crucial differences between the book and movie.

  • Astrid is 12 years old at the beginning of the novel. In the film, she is 15.
  • 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 the novel, Astrid lives in five foster homes and a group home, staying with Starr, Ray, and Starr's children; Marvel and Ed Turlock; Amelia Ramos; Claire and Ron Richards; MacLaren Children's Center (known as "Mac"); and Rena Grushenka. In the movie, she lives in three foster homes and McKinney Hall.
  • In the novel, Astrid does not live with Olivia Johnston (the Turlocks' neighbor) as she does in the film.
  • In the novel, Astrid is attacked by dogs and scarred for life; this does not happen in the film.
  • In the novel, Amelia Ramos starves Astrid and her foster sisters; this does not happen in the film.
  • Ray is almost 50 in the book, but in his 30s in the film.
  • 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". In the film, Ingrid's relationship with Barry is heavily condensed, and Astrid's emotional attachment to Barry is only hinted at when she tells Davey she might have saved his life.
  • In the novel, Astrid and Paul move to Berlin, Germany. In the movie, they move to New York.
  • In the novel, Astrid has an affair with Rena's boyfriend, Sergei. He isn't in the film.
  • In the novel, Astrid remembers Annie – her former babysitter – after taking acid with her friend Niki. In the movie, Astrid remembers Annie on her own and often draws portraits of her.
  • 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 holds a rating of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes[4] and a score of 61 on Metacritic,[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] Andrew Sarris, writing for The Observer, named it as a runner-up on his list of the ten best English-language films of 2002.[8]

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",[6] while the Los Angeles Times singled out her "riveting, impeccable performance in what is literally and figuratively a killer role."[9] Variety described it as a "daring, unsympathetic performance".[10] Lohman's work was variously described as "the year's most auspicious screen acting début",[6] a "tremendously weighty and extended role... [taken on] with great confidence"[10] and an "awesome performance".[7]


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.[11]

Zellweger was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture.[11]

Lohman was nominated for the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Newcomer.[11]

Marc Donato won a Young Artist Award in the category of Best Performance in a Feature Film – Supporting Young Actor.[11]

Home media[edit]

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.[12]


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

External links[edit]