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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie includes brutality of a modern-era Dickensian quality. Astrid is seduced by one foster parent and shot by another. A third commits suicide. Astrid is subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Ingrid murders her lover. There are non-explicit sexual situations and references. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs. Characters use strong language and mock religious faith.
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What's the story?
When strong willed artist Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) murders her lover, she is sent to prison, leaving her daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman) to a series of foster homes. First, Astrid lives with Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a situation that starts out fine until Astrid gets involved with Starr's live-in boyfriend. Astrid's other foster homes include Claire (Renée Zellweger), a weepy actress with a distant husband, and Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a money-hungry Russian who rules a ragtag group of orphans. In between, she stays at an institution, where she is beat up by tough girls but befriended by sensitive Paul (Patrick Fugit). Each setting provides Astrid with a new identity to try and a new opportunity to be hurt. Through it all, she visits her mother in prison, and it becomes clear that the woman who killed the man who tried to leave her would also do anything -- and destroy anyone -- to hold on to her daughter. Whenever Astrid seems happy, Ingrid finds a way to ruin it, leaving Astrid confused and self-destructive. Finally, though, she learns that she is reacting to Ingrid, and that to be fully her own person she must find her own way to intimacy and expression.
Is it any good?
Even Michelle Pfeiffer's exquisite performance and the powerhouse appearances by Robin Wright Penn and newcomer Alison Lohman can't keep the endless series of tragedies from melodrama. WHITE OLEANDER is adapted from a book with language both vivid and lyrical that made the terrible events more epic than sordid. The movie tries to achieve the same standard, going for prestige drama over soap opera.
A Jungian analysis might suggest that the story is a metaphor for the inevitable separation in all mother-daughter relations. All of the mother figures -- Ingrid, the foster moms, and the social worker -- are like one mother splintered into many extreme versions, as though reflected through a prism. All children find their mother to be many things, from the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving figure of their earliest memories to the extremely demanding and ultimately rejecting caricature she can appear to a teenager struggling to know herself.
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