Making the Grades
Unlike getting a driver's license, there are no prerequisites to meet before having a baby. No test of mental stability or emotional maturity. No exam on successful personal relationships. No obligation to prove competence. Despite that, many individuals rise to the role of parenthood. Many, but not all.
Haunted by a painful past, Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a woman given to passion, an artist who wrestles between her need for autonomy and the responsibility of raising a child. Free-spirited and self-absorbed, she leaves her daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman) in the car while she visits her lover for an afternoon tryst. But when ardor turns to murder, her offspring is put in the care of California's child welfare program.
For 15-year-old Astrid, this event is the start of a journey for self-discovery. Shuffling through a complex world of foster homes, she struggles to find an identity separate from her mother. But the caregivers she meets along the way seem as riddled with problems as she is.
Under Starr's (Robin Wright Penn) guardianship, she dabbles in religion, tampers with illicit sex, and suffers a violent attack. In Claire's (Renee Zellweger) care, she finds a confident and friend, a gentle soul that her mother comes to detest. Finally, sent to barter her way through life with a swap meet stall owner (Cathy Ladman), she realizes her need to be free of her past's debilitating hold.
But liberating herself means asking some hard questions of the calloused woman locked up in prison -- the mother who can't live with her and can't live without her.
Failing to represent any successful foster homes, White Oleander is a bleak look at the world of government-sanctioned childcare and the wards often forced, because of neglect, to enter the system. With a mature subject theme, profanities and suggested sexual relations, the film may fail to meet family viewing criteria. But for older teens accompanied by parental discussion, this film could spark dialogue on ways to improve a program that accommodates thousands of young people.
Children left without positive role models may be destined to repeat a cycle as deadly as the poisonous oleander.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about White Oleander.
How did Astrid’s wardrobe change in each of her foster homes? What do you think her clothing choices represented?
Astrid and her mother had some family rules including one about allowing a man to stay the night. How did breaking that rule affect their future lives? Do you think the outcome would have been different if they had abided by it?
In the end, what did Astrid discover about her mother that allowed her to move forward? Are people destined to imitate their childhood exemplars? What does it take to change negative behaviors into positive ones?