Blonde on blonde

Director Peter Kosminsky’s inspired tale of mother-daughter torment.

Oct 16, 2002 at 12:00 am

“Love humiliates you — hatred cradles you.” Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) brews her philosophy and feeds it to her daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman), daily.

“Never let a man spend the night ... never apologize ...”

Astrid listens and believes. What else can she do? But she sees her mother beginning to break her own rules. Even after Ingrid’s sent to prison for poisoning her boyfriend (Billy Connolly), her words guide and haunt her daughter’s actions from foster home to foster home. When Astrid puts what she’s been taught into practice, the results force her to question her mother’s lessons, and search for something that doesn’t destroy the people around her.

Janet Fitch originally wrote White Oleander as a short story. When it was rejected by Ontario Review, Fitch took to heart the note from Joyce Carol Oates suggesting the piece read more like a novel’s first chapter than a short story. And, as they say, the rest is history: from an Oprah-approved good read, adapted to the screen by Mary Agnes Donoghue (who also scripted Beaches for film), until finally a film so perfectly seductive and unnerving it’s impossible to imagine it transpiring any other way.

Director Peter Kosminsky has made a truly inspirational leap from his usual fare of TV movies. The metaphor that stirs the story into motion permeates the film visually. Like the beautiful, delicate and deadly poisonous white oleander flower, Kosminsky has wrapped each scene with a soft-velvet camera eye that follows the young girl around like a dedicated diary. Images pass before you, almost as if you were turning over the pages of the novel, fading in, then giving you what you need, just enough, before fading out. But instead of floating away in the dry Santa Ana winds, the scenes are held in place by a continuous noxious undercurrent. “What” is happening is on equal ground with “how” the events flower out, and the film’s intensity grows between the contrast and interaction of the two — and with subject matter whose “to be or not to be” importance will never expire.

Even locked away in prison, Ingrid lives in Astrid’s mind like a disquieting spirit — never sleeping, ever present — in her consciousness, waiting for any opportunity to reignite past persuasions.

After finding her looks a target for the hostilities of other “not so pretty” girls in the youth home, and getting a bloody lip and a black eye, Astrid takes a penknife and slowly slices off her most obvious connection to Ingrid — her beautiful blond hair — as if trying to cut her mother’s thoughts from her head. Only when her hair is gone does she become approachable. While she’s drawing, nerdy, introverted Paul (Patrick Fugit) looks over her shoulder at her work. He asks, “How come you cut your hair off? You’re still beautiful.” She answers, “Looks don’t interest me.” Astrid tries desperately to find herself by rejecting her mother’s words written from a cell, “Our beauty is our power, our strength.”

Everyone in this barrage of blondes shines, from Robin Wright Penn’s portrayal of born-again white-trash Starr to Renée Zellweger’s failed-actress, failing-marriage Claire. As Astrid, Lohman covers the screen like an enchanting pastel drawing, her underdeveloped edges bleeding into the face and hair of her looming mother in the background.

Michelle Pfeiffer is frightening. She combines a blinding, crisp beauty with unsettling insentient certainty, like a cinematic incarnation of the Snow Queen, shooting slivers of ice into those around her every time she delivers a line. She plays with foster mothers like a cat torturing a mouse before getting bored enough to kill.

Although extreme, the film embodies the potentially torturous struggle of a child breaking free of a parent’s psychological grasp — necessary at first, then becoming a burden when suffocating the young adult’s coming-of-age independence. What works for Mom and Dad doesn’t necessarily work for the next generation.

What makes Ingrid’s words so disturbing is their mixture of truth and alluring distortion. She believes everything she tells Astrid. She explains the ways of the world through her own perspective shaped by personal pain. What else can a mother do?

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].