The White Oleander movie and the Anywhere But Here movie are mother/daughter dramas with different degrees of motherly dysfunction.
The 2002 White Oleander movie is a rougher version of the ride in the 1999 Anywhere But Here movie. Both feature mother/daughter stories, and, while the mothers in each leave you pulling your hair out for different reasons, the daughters unite you in rooting for their survival and ultimate success. These movies portray tests of wills with both girls calling their moms out on their bogus garbage. At the heart of both movies are girls adrift, estranged sisters from other mothers, trying to understand their mothers and their own situation, made all the more poignant by the way they internalize everything they face.
The details of the legal drama in White Oleander left me somewhat adrift myself, but suffice it to say, mother Ingrid Magnussen, played hard and tough by Michelle Pfeiffer, ends up doing even harder time in the joint for murder. Daughter Astrid, is a soft and tender soul cast off by this turn of events at a soft and tender age. So it is off to juvy and into the grip of the state family services authorities. Trust me, this is the last thing you would ever want to happen to your family. Once it happens, you lose control of everything in your life. As Astrid bounces between foster families and juvenile hall, you really have to root for her survival as well as be impressed by her resilience.
Astrid also changes quite a bit as she sees the ways of the world. This includes seeing her imprisoned mom for what she is. Alison Lohman does a fantastic job bringing Astrid to life as a changeable and observant chameleon, flotsam on an angry sea. Once she chops her beautiful blond hair short, all bets are off and she would slice your neck while you sleep if you mess with her. Her words, not mine. By the end of the movie, you have had many chances to look deeply into the eyes of this young woman who is trying not to become a lineal tragedy in this disintegrating family of two.
Astrid’s final evolution before being set free from her mother’s tyranny is what her mother calls her Sunset Strip hooker look, which on the surface is darkly goth. In reality, it is a perfect match for the dark eyes that peer out from her all black look, eyes darker than anyone could imagine upon meeting the angelic young blonde at the beginning of the movie. When it came to her mother, Astrid was the type to fight fire with fire, and the Gothic darkness of her image is merely a reflection of the darkness of her heart as she finally hits bottom in the relationship. The world is full of clichés and that is partly because they are true. Here, Astrid must hit rock bottom before she can rise again, it is always darkest before the dawn, and blondes have more fun. There is hope for Astrid.
In Anywhere But Here, life is not desperate in the prison, juvenile hall, foster family sense, but it certainly does put the “dys” in dysfunctional. Here the prison is metaphorical. Young Ann August, an amazing Natalie Portman, is trapped with her restless to listless mother, Adele August, played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon, in a hopelessly unstable life in California. Early in the movie, when they are moving from Wisconsin to Los Angeles, Ann wants off this joyless ride, demonstrating one of the things she has in common with Astrid and many of these poignant, teen girl, would-be survivors: good instincts. I’d put her chances of making it alone in the desert versus making it alone with her mother in LA at about even money.
One thing Astrid and Ann also have in common besides their dastardly or ditsy mothers is their magician-like fathers who have both managed to completely disappear from everything except their daughters’ wishes. There is real sadness here, in the eyes of the two girls, as they try to remember and connect, only to be met with a futile fate: faceless fathers. Extended family is no help, either. Ann’s is at war with one another and Astrid’s is non-existent.
But all is not lost. Let’s search for role models. As the girls scan the horizon, difficult when you always have to be looking over your shoulder or out of the sides of your eyes at mom, hope is out there, even if it does not always arrive perfectly on-time. And this hope can come in many guises.
For Ann, in the Anywhere But Here movie, it could be the salt-of-the-earth type real estate lady that befriends Ann and Adele in LA. Or it could be the reasonable man Adele is not interested in. Carpet sales don’t really light her fire. Or the LA police officer that gives Ann some cogent advice. For Astrid, in the White Oleander movie, the comic book store owner provides a sense that there are some people you can count on in this world.
But, ultimately, for Astrid, it is the foster mother she picked for herself, a Russian immigrant woman with a keen sense of business and survival, honed by a collective consciousness of sieges, Siberia and shortages. If Rena Gruschenka can survive the Iron Curtain and prosper in America, then Astrid should have a puncher’s chance. Rena, an awesome character played by Svetlana Efremova, arrives just in the nick of time for Astrid and infuses her with a bit of Eastern European punk-rock attitude that seems to suit Astrid just fine. With mothers like Adele and Ingrid, role models are like chances and you have to take them where you find them.
Rena’s arrival seems like a sly shot at the notion that you can’t choose your parents and you can’t choose your children. When given the opportunity, Astrid chose well. In fact, any of the mothers, real or foster, in either movie could have benefited from Rena’s skills and improved their life dramatically. Notice that there was no guy pushing Rena around? Rena’s mantra, in thick Russian accent, was a trash-to-cash, swap-show mentality, that sounded something like, “You get money, is smart.” Yes, these girls had internal problems that no money could cure, but on the other hand there aren’t many external problems that a couple thousand bucks won’t fix. Pravda.
And boyfriends are a thing, too. After years of looking wide-eyed, with sponge-like interest, at their mothers’ love lives, which would end in murder, divorce, abandonment, and bouncing around like a pinball, you can applaud these young ladies for being selective and staying in control. Questionably, their mothers indulged them with too much information, but it appears the girls processed this as cautionary. The young men in Astrid’s and Ann’s lives are basically harmless and the young ladies maintain the upper hand from the beginning.
There is hope for the future with both young men. The same goes for career and school. Over time, some things will change, some will stay the same. Role models will be available and the future will look better. Ultimately, Ann and Astrid, after a rough go entering their teens look like their exit will be as smart and just-tough-enough young ladies. You get the sense they could chart their own course, be leaders and role models themselves. In their young lives they have each had a world of experience. The darkest hours of their collective nightmare seems behind them and dawn’s promise points to a better day. And by the end of these movies, a trite and hackneyed cliché is, instead, a welcome relief.