- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

"White Oleander" is a loaded botanical allusion, the equivalent of "Pretty Poison." In the novel by Janet Fitch, the attractive but poisonous plant of the title alludes not only to a beautiful but sinister mother, but to the source of the concoction she uses to kill her lover ultimately wrecking her life and jeopardizing the future of an adolescent daughter.
The proud and appalling Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a poet with a vindictive streak who regards herself as a kind of Nordic goddess. When she takes her reprisals against her unfaithful lover (a short-lived Billy Connolly), she ends up behind bars. Her daughter, Astrid, an affecting and resilient orphan of the storm as embodied by Alison Lohman, is placed in a succession of foster homes and her journey through these unhappy circumstances becomes the film's concern.
The foster refuges seem almost perversely ill-chosen. It's as if the welfare agencies in Southern California had decided that the best change of scene for an exquisite girl with a despotic, jailed mother would be something outrageous: foster mothers whose sanity is also conspicuously borderline.
In one, Astrid barely escapes murder at the hands of an overcompensating sex bomb named Starr Thomas (Robin Wright Penn), who already has three children to neglect. She grows suspicious of the girl's potential for enticing a live-in boyfriend, played by Cole Hauser in an expertly smoldering and diffident performance.
Following an interlude at a juvenile dormitory (which begins to look much safer and introduces the heroine to a steadfast admirer in Patrick Fugit of "Almost Famous"), Astrid gets to experience disillusion in Malibu. Here in the lap of luxury is Renee Zellweger, playing a well-meaning but disconsolate and childless housewife named Claire Richards, who is struggling to sustain a marriage with her film-director spouse, Mark (Noah Wyle). Claire is also belittled and deceived from afar by the possessive and malicious Ingrid, loath to permit any other woman to rival her as an influence on Astrid.
The movie version provokes our empathy, thanks in great measure to Miss Lohman's freshness and aptitude. She protects the whole conception from collapsing into a grotesque melodramatic heap. The film commands more respect than the book, at least until Astrid begins to seem jinxed to a fault, an unwitting victim of sadistic, tear-jerking fiction.
Director Peter Kosminsky, a veteran of many BBC documentaries and features, imposes a straightforward approach that helps keep the early episodes within the realm of the plausible, banal and absorbing. Mr. Kosminsky's expository style keeps his young lead foremost in our apprehensions. The domestic and institutional settings also feel distinctive and authentic, a very useful attribute in a plot that ultimately traffics in near-ludicrous coincidence and repetition.
Yet the chronicles of misfortune might be safer from creeping ridicule if they were confined to one dysfunctional foster family. Multiplying the roster of bad influences Astrid must overcome recalls Thelma Ritter's great quip in "All About Eve" after listening to Anne Baxter's account of youthful struggle: "What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
The plot begins when Astrid is 15 and ends three years later. Miss Lohman must simulate the acquisition of some emotional scar tissue in the process, while also outgrowing and adopting several looks, from the angelic to the hard-boiled. The fundamental source of poignancy is the girl's abiding need for the mother she once idolized and trusted a lost soul, one would gather.
The most eloquent and effective scenes between Miss Lohman and Miss Pfeiffer imply an independence and moral resistance in the younger woman that one wants to trust. It certainly would be discouraging to think of Astrid as a chip off the old block.

****
TITLE: "White Oleander"
RATING: PG-13 (Thematic preoccupation with family separation and conflict; occasional profanity and graphic violence; allusions to a murder case; occasional sexual candor)
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Kosminsky. Screenplay by Mary Agnes Donohue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes


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