Thursday, 27 May 2010

Growing up in Style - Astrid Magnussen

Those of you who read my short Q&A in The Times will have seen me admit to my 'geeky' childhood and how my style evolved somewhat at university, as I grew up. Those who know me well (and I guess that's not that many) will know of my love for the film White Oleander, about a young girl forced into a series of foster homes as a result of her mother's inprisonment. Allison Lohman, probably best known for Drag Me To Hell, plays the heroine, Astrid, and Michelle Pfeiffer plays her charismatic, destructive mother Ingrid. Throughout the film, despite moments close to genuine happiness, Ingrid's influence holds sway over Astrid in such a way that her life is continuously disrupted by her mother's influence, her life and the lives of those who take her in degenerating to such an extent that Astrid finally cuts her mother off to achieve happiness and, crucially, her own life. 
Subtle it may not be, but Astrid's evolution can be perfectly mapped through her style changes. Like most of us, her style evolves as she grows, and like all of us, reflects the situation she is in and the people who are influencing her life. 
At the start of the film, we meet her and her mother, a successful artist. Virtually identical, they both sport long blonde hair and flawless pale complexions, and a passion for art.

Before long, Ingrid has killed her lover when she discovers him cheating, and is taken from her house. Astrid is, subsequently, sent to her first foster home, with Starr, played by Robin Wright-Penn. Starr belongs in True Blood - a devout Evangelical, she is also known to trot around in short, tight skirts and tops, and have a relationship with a married man. 

But she is loving and welcoming to Astrid, having her baptised into her church and altering her dress to that more fitting of a pretty young teenager. Starr is aiming for childish sweetness, but she ends up re-styling Astrid as a Lolita-type figure, not helped by Astrid's close relationship with Starr's boyfriend, 'Uncle' Ray. Before long, Astrid has entered into a sexual relationship with Ray, forcing Starr to drink, Starr's daughter to leave the home as a result and the other foster children to suffer neglect. It is only when Starr, in a fit of rage, shoots Astrid, that the family totally combusts, with Starr and Ray fleeing and leaving Astrid and the other two foster children to the state. 
After this, Astrid is moved to McKinney Hall, somewhere between orphanage and centre for delinquents; she gets into a fight within minutes of the storyline's shift, as another girl expresses jealousy of Astrid's ability to turn male heads. Astrid responds by cutting off all her hair to make herself 'ugly'. When questioned about this by fellow resident Paul, she says 'looks don't interest me', to which he responds 'that's easy for you to say, you've never been ugly'.

Having recovered from her gunshot wound, Astrid goes to live with a young couple, including the flighty actress Claire (Renee Zellweger). Claire's husband is away a lot and Astrid becomes something between daughter and best friend, and, as her mother later observes, carer. Nevertheless, stability seems to return to Astrid's life. She abandon the aggressive persona that she adopted at McKinney Hall, and styles herself like Claire in pastel shades and a softer haircut.
While Astrid is staying with Claire, both women go to visit Ingrid in prison, and Ingrid's ensuing talk with Claire prompts another breakdown; Claire's husband leaves, and Claire commits suicide. Ingrid insists that it wasn't her fault, that she merely helped Claire in the means by which to do something she'd already wanted to do.
Following Claire's suicide, Astrid, having informed Ingrid that she will never visit her again, returns to McKinney Hall. Though not for long; she selects her next foster mother herself; the bohemian Russian Rena. Astrid styles herself on Rena and her freer lifestyle, moving from the soft look of her youth to a harder, grungier edge.


While living with Rena, Astrid is approached by her mother's lawyer; Ingrid is appealing against her conviction and needs Astrid to testify that her lover was abusive and violent. Astrid goes to meet her mother, but dyes her hair dark brown and wears darker clothes, in total contrast to Ingrid's love of washed-out denim and pale hair. She describes Astrid as looking like a hooker. Astrid, smoking all the while, tells Ingrid that she may not like what she sees in Astrid but Ingrid's influence has destroyed her and made her rebel this way. Astrid offers her an ultimatum; if she wants her daughter back the way she was, Ingrid must drop the appeal and do time for what she did. 

On the day of the trial, Astrid arrives with her friend Paul, with black hair and clothes and heavy makeup, rebellious yet prepared to testify. When she arrives at the courthouse, she finds it emptying and when she asks her mother's lawyer what happened, she learns that Ingrid told the lawyer to leave her be, and has let her go. As a result, Astrid, though free of her mother's destructive influence, can finally revert to loving the mother she idolises. The final shows her in her apartment, making artworks - suitcases to symbolise each stage of her life after the murder. She has dyed her hair back to blonde, wears it long and with pale clothes. She has reverted to the style her mother put her in, but she has evolved naturally into it, as opposed to being forced to wear the same style all her life.
I love watching Astrid's transformation on-screen because it shows perfectly how your environment influences your appearance and look. Astrid's style is a reflection of her situation, like with all of us, but she is an artist, and her representation is always artistic. Thankfully, by the end, despite trying out so many other peoples' styles, she finds hers, on her own terms.

PS Sorry for those of you who haven't read the book or seen the film, to you this is just rambling! Hope it made for an interesting read, though.

1 comment:

  1. It's an amazing film! The book is even better, I recommend it to you if you haven't read it

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