26 November 2005

White Oleander

The movie White Oleander, based on a book that my wife has read twice (the book has a title and cover that draw interest well), was on the video menu in our house this evening. The nutshell version: Astrid's single mother kills her latest boyfriend, sending Astrid into a whorlwind of mostly bad foster care experiences puntuated by visits to her mom in a maximum security prison.

The movie could have chosen to be about many things. For example, it could have been about sex. But, it chose to make that a minor sideshow. It could have been about the horrors of foster care life - but the movie chose to omit one of the two most horrid foster care episodes in the book and makes little effort to place blame for what goes wrong. It could have been about flaws in the criminal justice system. But, it wasn't. It would have been easy to make a book about a ruined girl, but the tragedies in her life, from beginning to end, while helping form her, do not truly maim her. The optimism of youth prevails over crutches she could blame for defeat.

What the movie did choose to delve into a length were beauty, love and identity. This was plenty.

Children's books spend a lot of time trying to tell them that beauty doesn't matter and that what is inside is all that counts. White Oleander begs to differ, and Michelle Pfiefer and Rene Zellwiger certainly help illustrate the point. Astrid is beautiful and it transforms her life. Every foster home we see epitomizes different visions of beauty: the view of a white trash ex-stripper, the view of Los Angeles glitterati, the view of a tough girl in a juvenile institution, a goth view. Astrid starts the story ripening into her beauty, drawing unwelcome attention at times, fostering jealousy, and setting her apart.

She always sees herself as an artist, and her juvenile hall boyfriend is one, with his own voice, as well. Seeing oneself as an artist is a transformative thing. One of my daughter's friend in elementary school is the daughter of artists and sees herself as one herself, and it defines the girl's existence. It gives her purpose and focus and a sense of self-worth. It isn't hard to see how it could do the same for Astrid.

As an artist, beauty is her pallette. She may not feel entitled to decide what breakfast cereal to eat, but she has no qualms about being an arbiter of who is and who is not an artist. She is continually reinventing her own image, as a mirror of those around her, as she slides from role to role to role. The story opens with her mother pushing her to understand why she finds a piece of art beautiful, and closes with an evaluation of her own life so far expressed in her art.

The foil of the mother against the loves in her daughter's life is instructive too. We don't believe the mother what she claims that loneliness is life's natural state, and that we should fear latching onto others because we want kindness, despite the endless betrays and broken relationships that play out before her. The story deglamorizes love, recognizing that we need it and that it changes lives, while also recognizing that it is not happily ever after and that platonic loves can be as powerful as the steamer kind.

Of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the religious subplot in Astrid's developing identity. Astrid's mother is an atheist or something close, and wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Her words in support of this are ones I can agree with, although nothing eats into your credibility like offering your words from a vistor's yard in a maximum security prison where you are serving time for murder. The mother's scorn is as acute for the superstitious New Age yuppie foster mother, who never the less does Astrid a lot of good, as it is for the Assembly of God hypocrite ex-stripper that has Astrid baptized, who does Astrid a great deal of harm (although even in this there is some good). And, the mother's scorn is poetically justified. Both women turn out to be deeply flawed. Little wonder then, that Astrid scorns the next good church going couple that comes along for an impropriately dressed woman tripping over her high heels. All the nightmares of an atheist parent play out here -- your own advice discredited, and your child is immersed in every other person's nonsense. But, neither the mother's controlling nature nor the foster parents follies ultimately seem to take hold. The daughter grows up to be some semblence of her mother's dreams even if it takes the mother a while to come to terms with that fact.

This story doesn't shy from class as well, and being a foster kid leaves your class maleable, but fundamentally as far down as you can go. Astrid's boyfriend makes the point all to well when he notes that the worst punishment that can be inflicted upon them is to send them where they already are now. Most of us live our lives with a single upbringing. Astrid has half a dozen mothers who come from entirely different places.

Perhaps it is Astrid's constant stark need to define herself as she must be infinitely adaptable, that helps form her character. Most of us struggle to some extent with who we are because, while we are rooted, with don't have well defined choices to make.

What are we left with when it is all over? The Hollywood ending is nice, particularly after such tragic fare. And, it isn't easy to make a big movie with nothing that couldn't be true, with nothing so sensational that it wouldn't escape from the inner pages of the B section in the newspaper. The versimilitude is impressive. Ultimately, we leave Astrid not with an identity, so much as a method or an attitude. She has little choice, if she is to maintain some sense of santity, to take the traumas of her life in stride, matter of factly and to take life as it is dealt her, not without an agenda of her own, not without some sense of what can be hers, but as facts instead of ultimate defining truths.

All of the music in the movie came from the rock genre, but her take on life is closer to country music. The airwaves have a crossover hit, "You'll Think of Me," by Keith Urban right now with the memorable line, "take your cat and leave my sweater" told from the perspective of a man whose relationship has ended and is moving on with his life. This is how Astrid lives. She's gotten good at moving on. And, perhaps that is the take home message of White Oleander. We need to accept where we are in our lives as facts and move on, looking forward, living day by day and making the best of what we face in life.

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