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.
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
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Fresh: 93 Rotten: 40
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Screenwriter: Mary Agnes Donoghue
Starring: Alison Lohman as Astrid Magnussen, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid Magnussen, Cole Hauser as Ray, Robin Wright as Starr, Amy Aquino as Miss Martinez, John Billingsley as Paramedic, Solomon Burke Jr. as Guard, Taryn Manning as Niki, Melissa Marsala as Julie, James Lashly as Reverend Daniels, Patrick Fugit as Paul Trout, Billy Connolly as Barry Kolker, Renée Zellweger as Claire Richards
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