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'White Oleander'

'White Oleander' is a turbulent story of adolescence

Friday, October 11, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

See, Hollywood can provide good roles for women, even if it reserves four of them for the same movie.

"White Oleander," based on the best-selling novel by Janet Fitch, chronicles the travails of Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman), a teenager thrust into foster-home hell after her mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a temperamental artist, goes to prison for murdering her unfaithful lover (Billy Connolly).


RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence

STARRING: Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger

DIRECTOR: Peter Kosminsky.

Critic's call:


Ingrid holds everyone to such high standards that few could meet them. Her sarcasm cuts deep -- she is judgmental to a fault the size of the San Andreas. Even from prison, her influence rumbles through Astrid's life and knocks down whatever semblance of normalcy the child might try to achieve. You are better than that, Ingrid rasps. They are not worthy of you. Don't aspire to be like them.

And while Ingrid can hardly be held up as a role model, her withering critiques of others have merit. You can't watch the movie and not sit in wonder at how the system can justify some of the women it allows to be foster mothers.

Astrid runs the gantlet. Starr (Robin Wright Penn) is a former stripper and drug addict who tries to reform by becoming a born-again Christian. Claire (Renee Zellweger) couldn't be sweeter, but like Astrid she clings to a mirage of happiness that is bound to vanish, with potentially catastrophic results. Rena (Svetlana Efremova) is the most functional of the foster mothers, but uses her girls in a way that may bring to mind a female Fagin.

For all that, the foster-mother theme is just a means to an end. "White Oleander" (the title refers to a beautiful but poisonous flower that is a metaphor for Ingrid) is really about Astrid's journey through a turbulent adolescence, which can only end by confronting her fearsome parent with the same kind of hard-eyed reproof that Ingrid visits upon others.

The movie's episodic structure and vivid characters -- for a while, I didn't know whether to take Starr seriously or write her off as just another sneering, gaudy burlesque of down-home religiosity -- reinforce the temptation to classify it off as high-class soap opera.

But the strength of the performances and the depth of insight that the film attempts legitimizes Astrid's rocky rites of passage.

Lohman, a 23-year-old Californian appearing in her first major film (she resembles a young Jessica Lange), literally has to carry the movie. Director Peter Kosminsky frames the entire story through her point of view -- we see only what she sees. Working opposite three of the best actresses in Hollywood, Lohman more than holds her own.

Zellweger demonstrates her amazing range once again, this time made up to look middle-aged and portraying a mousy woman so desperate to please that (unless you are Ingrid) you can't help but like her and perhaps even forgive her self-destructive submissiveness.

Penn has a more difficult task, to keep Starr from sliding into caricature. I'm not sure the screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue makes that completely possible, but Penn makes us understand the woman's insecurities and how she deals with them. She also gives her religious rote enough sincerity that we can believe she honestly wants to reform.

As for Pfeiffer, her dazzling beauty has always been an issue that she overcomes surprisingly well when cast in a hard drama. Ingrid is supposed to be a bit of a dazzler herself, and Kosminsky succumbs to the temptation to let her glow at first.

In the prison scenes, Pfeiffer has no trouble selling Ingrid's tart putdowns and her selfish refusal to allow Astrid any slack despite being responsible for her daughter's dilemma. But couldn't someone have convinced Pfeiffer to cut her flowing golden locks, or at least tie them up in a bun, for the sake of jail-yard realism?

I suppose Ingrid wouldn't have had it any other way. "White Oleander" offers a generous dose of her fiery, acerbic sting.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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