Directed by Peter Kosminsky, "White Oleander" captures the transformations a young girl undergoes once her bewitching artist mother is imprisoned for a crime of passion. Bounced around from one foster home to the next, the quietly intense Astrid tries on various looks and personas while her mother, Ingrid, tries to control her from inside the state pen.
Based on the novel by Janet Fitch, I'm assured by those who have read it that the transition from novel to film is a successful one. A certain mood is captured, like floating on a surreal river of doom; when the nucleus of your young universe is a sick and cruel murderess, disturbing events are sure to follow.
The film boldly refutes that common complaint about no great roles for women in Hollywood. At last, here is a film starring women that cannot be classified as a Chick Flick. While there are very few men in this story (and they mostly inspire bad behavior from the ladies) they are incidental. "White Oleander" isn't even a film about mother/daughter bonds, it's simply about one wacko mom, her unfortunate daughter and all the secrets and lies between them.
We have not seen or heard the last of Alison Lohman who portrays the terribly unlucky Astrid. Timid at first, her strength slowly builds itself up to produce one angry gal. Astrid is sweet yet has inherited a manipulative streak from her mother that brings unwanted drama to her life.
Michelle Pfeiffer is bone-chilling as Ingrid, the selfish mother whose emotional grasp reaches beyond the bars of incarceration. Pfeiffer reveals a hard heart with a soft face with stunning accuracy. It's quite something when those high cheekbones show up onscreen and the audience recoils.
Robin Wright Penn is the slutty bible-thumping Starr, the first foster mother and, undoubtedly, the scariest. She's about as nutty as Ingrid but comes with some troublesome attachments. Think sex, screaming, gunfire and spandex.
Astrid herself is soon placed in a prison-like situation at a tough half-way house for teens. There she meets Paul, a tall, lanky boy who has known rough times as well. Capably played by Patrick Fugit, he is the sole source of peace and emotional clarity for Astrid, even though it takes her a while to realize it.
Renee Zellweger is Claire, a mediocre actress living with her absentee director husband, Mark, played by Noah Wylie. Claire is an open wound waiting to bleed and soon enough, she does.
"White Oleander" is a dense, dark road through harsh environments. Don't look away.
© 2002 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 10/16/02