Oleander: Review

Oleander: Review

By Thomas White. 

Oleander is the story of a precocious teenager and her rebellion against the religious principles of her Christian abstinence program

Narrated by voiceover we witness her acting out, her resistance manifested by flaunting her sexual promiscuity and showing disregard for any form of authority, although it is never made clear why she does not simply stop attending these meetings. Instead she writes a popular social media blog recounting her narcissistic exploits. 

However, angsty teenage behaviour aside, we do feel an empathy for the character. Emily Robinson plays the role with honesty and a free-spirited nature which is hard not to warm to. Presented with her outlook, seeing the other characters from her viewpoint, we naturally gravitate towards taking her side, regardless of her naïve attitude. 

Peri Gilpin brings solemnity to her performance as the evangelistic mediator of the group meetings, her own neediness and desperation straining out behind an overly beseeching facade. 

This is only increased by the presence of a camerawoman, played by Jennifer LaFleur, who is simultaneously filming the meetings for a promotional documentary. She, we are told via Oleander’s voiceover, does not conform to the faith but operates as a neutral party. Although we follow the story principally through Oleander’s eyes, it is this outsider to whom we can look for an unbiased viewpoint as events unfold. Professional to a fault, her ultimate service is to that of the director, carrying out the job ruthlessly and by any means necessary, whatever the emotional cost. 

These two opposing endeavours, the holy righteous documentary and the irreverent online posts, are equally about self-promotion. Both represent the same thing, the sense of having some sort of control over life’s insecurities. 

Religion and media are the driving themes, incorporating with them trust, betrayal, sex, power, ego, and other complexities normally associated with them. By using two of the most powerful organisations and mediums used to influence society, director Kate Hackett has a rich emotional palette with which to tell a simple but effective, clever and unexpected story. 

What we initially take at face value turns into a deeper, manipulative plot, a deception we allow ourselves to accept readily, much in the same way as those seeking an established construct to which to devoutly conform. 

Without giving too much away, Hackett plays just as much with the audience’s mind as she does with Oleander’s distorted emergence by the film’s unpredicted conclusion, a fate dictated by those with the practical skills and tools to influence minds. It pulls at the emotional heartstrings, doing a cut and paste job of our preconceived ideas of formal narrative emphasis and human understanding, leading to a satisfying payoff. 

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