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White Oleander (PG-13)

Warner Bros.
Official Site
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Producers: John Wells, Hunt Lowry
Written by: Mary Agnes Donoghue
Cast: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn, Noah Wyle, Svetlana Efremova, Patrick Fugit

Rating: out of 5

The women in White Oleander aren't so much people as walking greeting cards, a gaggle of beautiful blondes who ingest Hallmark platitudes and proudly dish out the leftovers. Their icky sentiments don't make them seem brilliant, only banal; they're just a bunch of cornballs who think Oprah invented philosophy. By the time the closing credits roll, death by oleander won't seem like such an unappealing prospect.

Many moviegoers may find the towheaded quartet of Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, and Renée Zellweger too stunning to resist, but their characters are thoroughly vacuous. Like dating a cardboard cutout of a famous movie star, they're fun to look at, but there's not much going on underneath.

White Oleander is based on the 1999 novel by Janet Fitch, which received a spot among the other female-centric yarns selected for Ms. Winfrey's book club. Even on the page, the dialogue was rather heavy-handed, the story itself teetering precariously close to melodrama. But the book successfully realized its potential, poignantly relating the story of a confused adolescent navigating her way through the foster care system.

The movie, on the other hand, is plagued by a plot that's far too convoluted for its brief running time, and a story that's in desperate need of internal narration. Perhaps our minds are filled with phrases like, "Love humiliates you; hatred cradles you," but even Dr. Phil isn't pretentious enough to say them out loud.

Lohman plays young Astrid, White Oleander's narrator, whose mother (Pfeiffer) is "the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." She's also the most cold-blooded bohemian who has ever traipsed the earth in Birkenstocks, an artist who murders her shaggy-haired lover after he rejects her.

Her mother sentenced to life in the pokey, Astrid finds herself stranded in one foster home after another, the first of which belongs to Starr (Wright Penn), a bible-thumping redneck with a son and daughter of her own. Foster mom also has a studly carpenter boyfriend, who assumes a starring role in Astrid's older man sex fantasies before crossing over into the teen's real-life bed.

Needless to say, that particular domestic situation doesn't have an auspicious conclusion, and Astrid is sent to the posh home of Claire (Zellweger), an unemployed actress who spends most of her days waiting for her TV director husband (Wyle) to return from distant locales. Zellweger is radiant as Claire, a woman who uses her ethereal presence to mask the severe depression lingering just below the surface. She showers Astrid with love, but even the presence of her foster child can't dilute the melancholy that encompasses her day-to-day existence.

Astrid's next foster mom is Rena (Efremova), who takes in teenage girls mostly to use as cheap labor. By the time she turns 18, Astrid is out of Rena's grasp and into the arms of Paul Trout—played by Patrick Fugit, who despite a charming presence is still not quite famous—her on-again-off-again-foster care chum.

Before leaving with Paul to New York, Astrid has one final confrontation with her mother that is nothing short of a gigantic letdown. Pfeiffer narrows her eyes into snakelike slits, hissing out pestilent insults like Medea reborn, but her resentful parent posturing retains a bizarre benignity. When Lohman requests, in her shaky, little girl voice, that her mother "let her go," the scene is meant to be a heart-tugger, but it's mostly just superfluous: She selfishly cut her daughter loose a long time ago.

Director Peter Kosminsky establishes the ooey gooey Oleander atmosphere by bathing the film in a hazy glow, filtering the darker elements of the story through a rose-tinted shimmer. He did the same thing in his 1992 version of Wuthering Heights, imbuing the film with a stoic gloom as if to say, "Sure, it's sad, but oh-so-uplifting!"

It's unfortunate that the characters inspire more enmity than empathy, but every one of their actions is so incredibly miscalculated, it's difficult to pity them. You expect Astrid's tentative happily ever after with Paul to be somewhat soothing, but it's not. The only comforting thing about White Oleander is the moment the sad sack tearjerker ends.

—Erin Steele


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