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Dustin Putman

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White Oleander (2002)
3 Stars

Directed by Peter Kosminsky
Cast: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Robin Wright Penn, Cole Hauser, Amy Aquino, Svetlana Efremova, Billy Connolly, Noah Wyle, Liz Stauber, Taryn Manning, Melissa McCarthy
2002 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for brief violence, language, and drug content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 12, 2002.

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 (Renée 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 transformed 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 Renée 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.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman