White Oleander is the latest in a string of studio-financed femme-oriented films that try to elevate what is essentially melodramatic, B-movie material to A-level status through a veneer of authenticity, a sense of gravitas and, even more pointedly, a cast of top-dollar -- and gorgeous-looking -- stars. But no matter how restrained the direction or unsentimental the performances -- and White Oleander scores points for both -- there is no escaping the semi-trashy but oh-so-life-affirming ring of the plot line.
Based on the best-selling novel by Janet Fitch (an "Oprah's Book Club" selection), the film stars relative newcomer Alison Lohman (TV's Pasadena) as 15-year-old Astrid, a shy, sensitive girl who lives with her strong-willed and unpredictable mother, Ingrid (Pfeiffer). Beautiful, seductive, impulsive, judgmental and cruel, Ingrid is the classic narcissist. Astrid is in awe of her but also recognizes her volatile nature and caters to it, rather than incur her mother's wrath.
That Ingrid loves her daughter is never in doubt, but her behavior is so motivated by her own egocentric wishes and desires that she does not see the damage she does to the girl. Astrid, who has acquired her mother's considerable artistic talent but, thankfully, not her domineering, self-absorbed personality, basically lives in her mother's shadow.
When, in a fit of passion, Ingrid murders her unfaithful lover and is sentenced to prison, Astrid is shipped off to a succession of foster homes. Her first foster mother (Wright Penn) is a spandex-clad former stripper turned born-again Christian; the second (Zellweger) is a sweet but fragile actress with a crumbling marriage; the third (Svetlana Efremova) is a savvy Russian émigré with a virulently capitalist streak. Astrid, who has never really forged her own identity, tries desperately to fit in to each new foster home, but her efforts are complicated not only by destructive conditions at each home but also by Ingrid's still powerful -- and often corrosive -- influence over her daughter.
At heart, White Oleander (named for a bush whose flowers are both beautiful and poisonous) is about a mother-daughter relationship and an adolescent girl's attempts to become her own person, but the story's romance-novel, soap-opera qualities keep getting in the way of any genuine emotional involvement. British director Peter Kosminsky, known on the other side of the Atlantic for both his award-winning documentaries and his television dramas, makes his American feature debut here and does his best to rein in the melodramatic aspects of the story. The fact that the film works at all is testament to his restrained direction and his ability to keep an essentially episodic script feeling like a complete whole (credit for that also goes to screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue, best known for Beaches).
Lohman does a nice job in the early part of the film but proves less convincing in the second half, when both she and the story line cross into territory associated with the great, generic television wasteland. Wright Penn makes great trailer-park trash, but the role itself is so over the top that it can't be taken seriously.
The two most impressive performances in the film are Cole Hauser, as Wright Penn's boyfriend, who struggles with his own attraction to Astrid, and Pfeiffer, who really connects with her role, conveying an ice cold hardness that truly seems born of the hottest passion. At times the actress comes perilously close to a hypnotic, evil-eye Svengali pose, but she always manages to pull herself back. Her performance here more than makes up for her abysmal appearance opposite Wright Penn's real-life hubby in last year's sickeningly saccharine I Am Sam. She had a five-minute, close-up crying jag in that film during which not one tear moistened her eye -- not even an artificial one supplied by the makeup department. In While Oleander, the anguish feels painfully real and the tears erupt from deep inside.
By a strange coincidence of timing, White Oleander is opening the very week that Los Angeles newspapers are reporting that nearly 500 foster children have disappeared from L.A. County's troubled child-welfare system. Alas, the film isn't meant to be a serious or critical examination of family and children's services; the entire foster-care development is a mere plot device to wrap a high-concept story around. This isn't a "message" movie; it's a "chick flick," plain and simple, with no higher or more noble aspiration. In fact, with all that radiant flaxen hair on display, it sometimes looks more like an advertisement for Clairol.