White Oleander


The oleander grows prolifically throughout California.  It is a very hardy and attractive plant…and it is poisonous.   So are the parents and foster parents in this film.  Oleander’s come with white flowers as well as with other colored flowers.  The movie White Oleander explores what the child welfare system does to a white family. 


Ingrid Magnussen (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is the hardiest, toughest, and most poisonous mother that you are likely to find in any story.  She is a hard-edged and talented artist raising her daughter alone.  She gets upset at the man in her life and poisons him using white oleanders.  As she planned this out, she is convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison.  Her teenage daughter Astrid (played by Alison Lohman) is sent into the child welfare system.  The first home we see her going to (she has to have been elsewhere’s because this happens after the conviction) is a foster home with Robin Wright Penn playing an alcoholic born-again-Christian foster parent with a live-in boyfriend.  Astrid and the boyfriend are attracted to one another; the foster mother starts drinking again, and ends up terminating the placement by shooting Astrid.


After Astrid gets out of the hospital she is placed in a big residential facility.   She gets into fights there but survives.  Then she is placed with a well off couple that have a shaky marriage.  This foster mom is played by  Renee Zellweger.  They are hoping that the foster child will somehow make their marriage work.  It doesn’t.  This time the placement is terminated when the foster mother commits suicide after she visits Ingrid in prison…Ingrid undermines the woman’s fragile hold on life, which precipitates the suicide of the one adult in Astrid’s life who really was able to care for her.


Back to the big residential facility until they can find another foster home for her.  The social worker this time comes up with a really stable and nice family for her.  Finally we see the light of hope at the end of the Child Welfare tunnel.  But Astrid rejects them in favor of a somewhat wacky immigrant Russian foster mother who is street smart.  No chance here of Astrid loving this woman or being loved by her…it is a “safe” relationship in which each exploits the other in an upfront manner.  Astrid confronts her mother in prison and stops going to see her.  But then her mother’s lawyer visits and Astrid makes a deal with mom…she will testify IF mom tells her the truth. 


For the first time Astrid learns about her mother’s life before Astrid was old enough to remember.  Her mom was in love, she became pregnant, the man abandoned Astrid and her when she was only six months old, Ingrid had difficulty coping with raising the child, so for about a year she had her placed in foster care but then retrieved her.  Astrid accuses her mother of always doing what is best for her; never what is best for Astrid.  She agrees to testify, to lie in court, to help get a new trial for Ingrid.  But she lets her mom know that if she really loved her daughter, she wouldn’t have her testify.


The court date comes.  The mother at the last minute does not have her daughter testify.  So, finally, Ingrid does, in her daughter’s opinion, an unselfish thing.  The movie ends with Astrid, who like her mother is a fine artist, living with a young man, also an artist, who genuinely cares for her, in New York with both of them into their art.


Lots of interesting messages in this film:


  1. Our child welfare system is dangerous!  We take children and sometimes (often?) place them in dangerous institutions and with incompetent and emotionally unstable foster parents.
  2. Adults often relate to children, whether they are the natural parents or foster parents, in a way designed to meet adult needs, not the needs of the children.
  3. Some parents are poisonous in terms of how they twist the way their children begin to see the world.  Parental role modeling can be dangerous.
  4. No matter how poisonous parents may be, children still tend to desperately love them.
  5. The system destroys some children, but others are toughened and become survivors.
  6. Even while loving their parents, children tend to judge their parents, tend to focus on the things they did wrong, rather than appreciate what they did that was in their best interests.


Soooo….given the above, let us assume you are the social worker in this case.  What would you do differently? 


Soooo….let us assume that nothing in the above movie script changes except the role of the social worker.  Astrid goes to the same homes and institution.  You don’t have any magical alternative placements for her.  What would you as the social worker then do?