If it weren't for the cache that came with being a selection in Oprah Winfrey's short-lived book club, any film adaptation of Janet Fitch's "White Oleander" would likely have wound up as a weepy, cable TV movie-of-the-week melodrama in which struggling former stars cry out for credibility.
But Warner Bros. dollars and a dedicated pedigree cast make all the difference in bringing to the screen this earnest (if not profound) saga of a tender teenage girl's roller-coaster ride through foster care after her bourgeois artiste mother is imprisoned for poisoning an errant lover.
Michelle Pfeiffer shows some serious bite as the girl's affectionate but inattentive, domineering and pernicious jailbird mom, who becomes subtly but increasingly detrimental to her daughter's psyche with every prison visit. And with foster parents played by Robin Wright Penn (as an aging white-trash tart who sees the 14-year-old heroine as sexual competition) and Renée Zellweger (as a sweet but clingy, failed L.A. actress looking more for a girlfriend than a daughter), you might think inexperienced lead actress Alison Lohman (Fox TV's "Pasadena") would have a hard time standing out.
But she makes a potent yet understated impression as the willowy, doe-eyed, vulnerable but increasingly stalwart Astrid, whose sweet, pliable, eager-to-please character is slowly tempered into defiant independence through the hardships she faces in her formative years.
Some of Astrid's tribulations have the air of allegorical inevitability, like her early exposure to sexuality at the hands of a foster father -- an episode in her life that is given a PG-13 whitewash by director Peter Kominsky (as are any psychological consequences). But "White Oleander" has abruptly heart-aching happenstance up its sleeves as well, especially as Astrid's mother becomes inimical and manipulative in the name of tough love.
"I'm the only person you know who can keep you honest," Pfeiffer snaps at the anguished girl after having a hand, from behind bars, in one tragic turn in her life in the hopes that Astrid will grow a thick skin.
Kominsky -- a Brit who got the nod to direct based on the strength of a film he made about an underaged prostitute called "No Child of Mine" -- garners such distinctive performances from his cast that the actors largely make up for the picture's generic, arms-length feel of studio-mandated public palatability.
This Hollywood sheen bedevils the film from the very beginning (opening and closing voice-overs are such a screenwriting crutch) and can be felt most distinctly in scenes a few years down the road when Astrid has become a rebellious punkette -- or at least professional make-up and costume designers' glossy, designer-leather, not-a-hair-out-of-place idea of a rebellious punkette.
Lohman's moist, deeply emotional eyes shine through this bogus veneer however, connecting you with Astrid's ever-strengthening heart. But the actress's most meaningful moments come during the interludes when Astrid is between foster families and staying in a dormitory-school that's about a half degree better than being in juvenile hall.
It's here she decides that "life's easier without friends," even though this is where she meets the one person she comes to count on -- a long-term resident named Paul, played by Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") who is superbly warm and unaffected in his small role. As they bond over their mutual aspirations as artists, Astrid gradually lets down her guard, at first platonically and then, after a knee-jerked retreat, romantically.
Even with all the talent surrounding her, it is Lohman who drives "White Oleander" with her affecting ability to play the entire range of this girl's rough emotional journey.
I was quite impressed that an actress so young could pull it off -- even if in the film's later scenes I was unconvinced that she'd aged four years, because she just looks way too 14 to play 18. So imagine my surprise to discover that Alison Lohman is 22 years old. Now I'm doubly impressed that she played 14 so well that I couldn't imagine her any older.
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: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Fresh: 93 Rotten: 40
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Peter Kosminsky
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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