White Oleander

"Very Good"

White Oleander Review


White Oleander is one girl's dramatic coming-of-age story -- emphasis on the word "dramatic." A bright teen bounces around some dreadful foster homes, gets street-tough while in a facility for abandoned kids, and witnesses more tragedy in three years than any person should see in a lifetime. With such relentlessly morose subject matter, you'd think director Peter Kosminsky's adaptation of Janet Fitch's bestseller would lean toward TV melodrama -- and while the script may do so, Kosminsky's deft direction and fine editorial choices make White Oleander an effective and well-paced story of self-realization and determination.

The novel White Oleander was a 1999 selection of the ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey Book Club and you can tell why: There are so many brutally dysfunctional people in the story that Dr. Phil could produce months of television delving into their sorry lives. Astrid (Alison Lohman) is an only child, growing up in the Hollywood Hills with Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), her eccentric, urban-arty mother. After a series of events that Kosminsky smartly keeps off-camera, Ingrid kills her boyfriend. Or does she? And how? Regardless, the beautiful, hopeful, young Astrid is picked up by state services and sent to live in a double-wide with a foster family.

Her troubles continue there, where a Bible-thumping, slutty-looking mom (Robin Wright Penn) has concerns about her boyfriend's (Cole Hauser) affections for the new addition to the family. So, it's off to the juvenile center, where she meets a sympathetic loner (Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit), and then on to another foster home. This one's got a compassionate but fragile B-movie actress (Renée Zellweger), living in luxury and looking for companionship while her philandering actor husband (an appropriately cold Noah Wyle) is away on "film sets."

And so on. It's just one tragedy after another for Astrid, but there's so much in White Oleander that really works that it's easy to forgive the Movie of the Week storyline. Most valuable is Kosminsky's visual approach -- the events of Astrid's life, as seen through her young and maturing eyes, have shocks of color but nearly all of them look washed out and raw through the lens of cinematographer Elliot Davis (I Am Sam). And by skillfully using a handheld camera where other filmmakers might stay static, Kosminsky gives Astrid's experiences a minor urgency and a distinct sense of claustrophobia. As her life closes in on her, the film's visual scope gets smaller.

That works best when Astrid visits her incarcerated mother (Pfeiffer's got to be the best-looking woman to ever grace the penitentiary). While Ingrid continues to manipulate her daughter and others, even from behind bars, Kosminsky keeps the action keenly focused on their conversations, allowing us to see very little that makes up the environment outside their emotionally insular world. What we get is a film that avoids soap opera territory because the filmmakers allow creative, well-plotted design to be their guiding force.

In interpreting the middling script, star Lohman provides honest emotion and detail while getting a chance to paint with nearly every color on the emotional palette. Pfeiffer successfully builds a mini-cult of personality through her two-dimensional character, a woman who preaches power and individuality as religion, just as her daughter comes to accept a God of her own. Zellweger, who gives her role a slightly wrinkled, movie actress countenance and a touch of resigned sadness, is especially likable. (In one particular moment of comic relief, the new "mom" shares clips from her work in a slasher movie -- it's actually Zellweger in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

While even hardened, melodrama-hating cynics may find something redeemable in White Oleander, teenage girls may gain the most satisfaction out of witnessing a frightened girl evolve into a strong woman. And for everybody else -- just be thankful this one wasn't a made-for-TV movie.

You can turn Oleander into your very own home movie of course on DVD, which adds a few strung together deleted scenes and a typical "I really loved this book and this is how the project came about" Hollywood commentary track to the mix. Reviewed at the 2002 Boston Film Festival.

E.T. Part Two.



White Oleander

Facts and Figures

Run time: 109 mins

In Theaters: Friday 11th October 2002

Box Office USA: $16.3M

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Production compaines: Gaylord Films, Warner Bros. Pictures, John Wells Productions, Oleandor Productions, Pandora Filmproduktion

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Fresh: 93 Rotten: 40

IMDB: 7.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Astrid Magnussen, as Ingrid Magnussen, as Ray, as Starr, as Miss Martinez, as Paramedic, Solomon Burke Jr. as Guard, as Niki, Melissa Marsala as Julie, James Lashly as Reverend Daniels, as Paul Trout, as Barry Kolker, as Claire Richards

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Jackie Movie Review

Jackie Movie Review

Rather than make a standard biopic about the most famous First Lady in American history,...

Split Movie Review

Split Movie Review

After a few badly received sci-fi blockbusters, M. Night Shyamalan returned to his earthier style...

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

It's been 15 years since Vin Diesel walked away from his XXX role, killing off...

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

This may not be the cheeriest movie of the season, but it's so skilfully written,...

Live By Night Movie Review

Live By Night Movie Review

Ben Affleck launched his directing career 10 years ago with his film of Dennis Lehane's...

La La Land Movie Review

La La Land Movie Review

After storming awards season with Whiplash two years ago, writer-director Damien Chazelle returns with something...

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Hopes were high that this film might finally crack the curse of movies based on...

Advertisement
Silence Movie Review

Silence Movie Review

Faith is a topic Martin Scorsese can't quite shake, courting controversy with complex films like...

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A difficult movie to market, this isn't actually the BFG-style fantasy adventure it looks like....

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Word has it that a 4-year-old came up with the idea for this unapologetically silly...

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Dramas exploring the nature of death and the true meaning of life are always in...

Paterson Movie Review

Paterson Movie Review

Unpredictable filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ricochets from his artful vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive into...

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

At 80 years old, British filmmaker Ken Loach won his second Cannes Film Festival with...

Why Him? Movie Review

Why Him? Movie Review

Writer-director John Hamburg continues to recycle the formula that made his first hit Meet the...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.