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White Oleander (2002)

I’d set these all on fire first. She’d like that, that’s what she would do. She’d make it just to burn it.”

A heartbreaking journey into the core of a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter, White Oleander explores the chaos of an over-possessive mother and the suffocating effects on her child.

Astrid (an Old Norse name – meaning beautiful goddess – highlighting her brilliance) is the only child of an artist mother, Ingrid. An incredibly liberated soul, Ingrid seems to have influenced Astrid (Alison Lohman) in her unbridled ways; so much so, that creativity is Astrid’s other parent. With no men present, Ingrid and Astrid live a perfectly functioning and nourishing life together alone.

Astrid is in perpetual awe of her stunning, Aryan-esque mother (Michelle Pfeiffer, no less) and – I sensed – ambivalent in her feelings towards her mother. Conflicted between loving Ingrid unconditionally (which of course, she does) and feeling inadequate against her, Astrid constantly seeks her mother’s approval:

1. Out of love

2. To emulate her.

What is important to remember here is that Ingrid, free and uninhabited, exerts her life philosophy dangerously. I will say that Ingrid herself is dangerous, and her ideologies are entirely unsuitable when raising a child. Although a teenager, Astrid already exhibits traits that her mother condemns – attachment, love, stability – and Ingrid instead teaches Astrid to paradoxically love freely but cautiously. Live wildly and carelessly. Hurt others the way they have hurt you. That’s not very hippie, is it?

It is Ingrid’s natural fire and destructive coldness that offsets Astrid’s warm and calming soul. Ingrid is restless, Astrid is stable. Ingrid is bitter, Astrid is sweet. Ingrid fatally confuses love with sex and in doing so, is sent to jail for killing a man who was (ironically) about to leave her because “he has a date”.

Back to the synopsis: Whilst Ingrid is incarcerated for killing her lover, Astrid is quite literally thrown around foster homes in an attempt to live as normal a life as possible. How can she do this without her mother – her best friend, her life force – present? The point is, Astrid can’t, even if she wanted to. Ingrid, through her incredibly manipulative and overbearing ways, manages to steer the course of Astrid’s life by poisoning her daughter’s mind (White Oleander, while we’re here, is a poisonous flower), and keeping Astrid her property.

What is most striking about this film is the hypocritical nature of Ingrid’s love for Astrid; with the mantra of free living (in every sense – no belongings, no ties, no stability), Ingrid holds an unnatural grasp over Astrid’s every move, controlling all aspects of her life. Deeply narcissistic, Ingrid selfishly keeps her daughter close to her in any way possible, even jeopardising Astrid’s safety.

But what happens when Astrid evolves into a strong, loving woman who is wise enough to see through her mother’s manipulation? Can she escape? Does she want to escape?

Keeping this review to a deep character analysis and a minimum synopsis,  I’ll try not to give too much more away. But know that this is a deeply relatable story that conveys the tragedy of an unnaturally possessive, toxic relationship between mother and daughter. Questions of parenthood, morality, right and wrong, personal philosophy and the abnormal act of clinging to things that must pass, are at the core of this unforgettable drama.

I don’t know how to express that being with someone so dangerous is the last time I felt safe.”


  • Striking dialogue and ideas from Ingrid that question your ideologies (I know my own changed)
  • Every major feminine influence in Astrid’s life is similar in appearance to her own mother – all blonde, beautiful and at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
  • Renee Zellweger’s performance as Astrid’s lifebuoy


  • Slightly unrealistic at some points
  • Ingrid has been described as a villain, which I wholeheartedly contend.

Final Verdict


Toxic relationships are at the heart of White Oleander. The best way I can summarise this film is to quote Astrid:

How do I show that nothing – not a taste, not a smell, not even the colour of the sky – has ever been as clear and sharp as it was when I belonged to her?”


2 thoughts on “White Oleander (2002)

  1. Pingback: The Burning Plain (2008) « Film & Philosophy

  2. Pingback: The Burning Plain (2008) | Film & Philosophy

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