Review by Dustin Putman
3 stars out of 4
One of the key conceits that "White Oleander," like 1999's underrated
"Anywhere But Here" before it, gets exactly right is the inextricable
bond between parent and child. As a child, you are raised to become
a certain kind of person with similar values to your parents or guardians,
and in some cases it is easy to forget your own individuality.
Teenager Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman) is a young woman who falls
victim to this very curse. When her intense, free-thinking artist
mom, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), is convicted of murdering a cheating
boyfriend (Billy Connolly), Astrid finds herself at the mercy of the
adoption agency, where she experiences three different foster families.
Her first stay is with trailer trash born-again Christian Starr (Robin
Wright Penn), who grows jealous of Astrid when she begins spending
time with Starr's live-in boyfriend (Cole Hauser). Her second stop
is her happiest, and most tragic, with struggling actress Claire Richards
(Renee Zellweger) taking Astrid under her wing. They quickly become
the best of friends, until a meeting with Ingrid in prison causes
drastic changes. Finally, Astrid chooses to stay with Rena (Svetlana
Efremova), a Russian woman who earns money at flea markets and turns
her children into trash-pickers. All the while, the easily influenced
Astrid finds herself t! ransformed by three wildly diverse and troubled
mother figures, and a possessive blood mother who refuses to apologize
for the decisions she's made in her own life.
Based on the novel by Janet Fitch (an Oprah Book of the Month winner),
"White Oleander" is not the feminist, melodramatic weeper one might
expect. The central themes involving familial relationships are universal,
and director Peter Kosminsky and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue
capture them with a powerful understatement that chooses to earn its
tears rather than strain for them.
Janet Fitch's source material had Astrid visiting five foster families,
while, in the interest of time, this cinematic adaptation cuts it
to three. Moving from one set of characters to the next roughly every
half hour threatens to give the film an episodic feel, but this dire
possibility mostly dissipates when Kosminsky and Donoghue successfully
spend enough time in each setting for the viewer to be engrossed and
touched by their appearances.
In a demandingly auspicious big-screen debut, Alison Lohman (who had
a bit part in 1999's "The Thirteenth Floor") is the one constant in
"White Oleander." Acting as the viewer's tour guide and put-upon heroine
who goes through a startling metamorphosis from trusting child to
wise young woman, Lohman is exceptional. Supporting her is one tremendous
co-star after the next. Michelle Pfeiffer (2001's "I Am Sam") injects
her difficult Ingrid with a stirring determination and an uncompromising
honesty. When Ingrid and Astrid occasionally reunite for visits, all
one can do is recoil in fear at the harsh words Ingrid may speak.
Pfeiffer has never, or rarely, been better. As a fellow orphan and
earnest artist Astrid befriends named Peter, Patrick Fugit (2000's
"Almost Famous") tuns in strong supporting work, as does Cole Hauser
(2002's "Hart's War"), as Starr's nice-guy boyfriend who briefly becomes
Astrid's sole father figure.
Special notice deserves to go to Renee Zellweger (2001's "Bridget
Jones's Diary"), an always-marvelous performer who here, as the kind-but-troubled
Claire Richards, gives a particularly unforgettable, courageous turn.
Claire is initially set up as an ideal, caring mother for Astrid,
and the many layers Zellweger gradually peels to uncover a woman who
is really in sheer mental pain is startling and nothing short of heartbreaking.
Claire has an indelible effect on Astrid's life, and the way in which
she does is aided immeasurably by Zellweger's involvement.
The conclusion of "White Oleander," like most of what has come
before, is poignant without turning into a sapfest, and subtle when
it could have more easily been overwrought. Despite a confused notion
over a "sacrifice" Ingrid makes for Astrid, the film is affecting
and rather weighty for mainstream fare. Even when certain plot developments
are hinted at, then unevenly passed over (no doubt a victim to the
PG-13 rating when an R would have strengthened the realism of the
situations), the exemplary performances across the board never once
disappoint. For an adaptation of a sprawling novel with a lot of territory
to cover in 109 minutes, "White Oleander" is a surprisingly mature and satisfying drama.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman