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"WHITE OLEANDER"
(2002) (Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: After her domineering mother is imprisoned for murdering her boyfriend, a teen tries to break free from her influence while going through various forms of foster care.
PLOT:
Astrid Magnusson (ALISON LOHMAN) is a 15-year-old whose entire life has been controlled by her highly opinionated and domineering, yet loving artist mother, Ingrid (MICHELLE PFEIFFER). Her life is turned upside down when her mother is arrested and then convicted of killing her unfaithful boyfriend, Barry Kolker (BILLY CONNOLLY).

Suddenly left alone, Astrid finds herself at the mercy of children's services worker Miss Martinez (AMY AQUINO) who places the teen with Starr Thomas (ROBIN WRIGHT PENN), a born again Christian who's living with her married boyfriend, Ray (COLE HAUSER) and raising kids Carolee (LIZ STAUBER), Davey (MARC DONATO) and Owen (DALLAS McKINNEY).

When that situation doesn't work out and turns volatile, Astrid finds herself going through a series of foster homes - including with entertainment types Claire (RENÉE ZELLWEGER) and Mark Richards (NOAH WYLE) as well as the bohemian Rena Grushenka (SVETLANA EFREMOVA) - and an interim group home where she meets fellow artist Paul Trout (PATRICK FUGIT).

As Astrid tries to find happiness in her life, she must continually put up with and finally try to break free from her mother's influence and manipulation that extend beyond the prison walls holding her.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's been said that the human spirit is resilient. That not only applies to enduring physical pain and hardship, but also that of the emotional variety. The latter can come from a number of internal or external sources, but conflict regarding one's relationship with their parents often seems to have some of the greatest impact in such matters.

Imagine then, if the single, highly opinionated and manipulative mother who's shaped a 15-year-old's life is suddenly yanked from it, but still manages to influence her from behind bars where she's been sentenced for murdering her boyfriend.

That's the premise of "White Oleander," an intriguing but generally depressing drama about such a young girl trying to get on with life in various foster homes, all while dealing with her still-manipulative mother who's determined not to allow any outsider to influence her daughter.

Based on Janet Fitch's 1999 novel of the same name, the film is a difficult coming of age story where there are no easy answers or solutions for the protagonist who's terrifically played by Alison Lohman ("Delivering Milo," "The Thirteenth Floor"). Framed by her voice over narration that introduces and closes the story, the film - directed by Peter Kosminsky ("Wuthering Heights," TV's "Warriors") who works from an adaptation of the novel by screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue ("Deceived," "Beaches") - certainly isn't an enjoyable or entertaining effort to sit through, although it is consistently engaging.

After a brief setup showing the close mother-daughter relationship, the pivotal, life-changing event occurs (off-screen) and we're suddenly thrust, along with the young protagonist, into the unpredictable world of foster care.

It's through these various episodes and encounters that the girl eventually comes to realize her mother for who she is and that, like the titular flower, she's simultaneously beautiful and poisonous. From that point on, she sets out, completely uncertain of how to proceed, to break free of her mother's control over her.

It's not always easy to watch, and doesn't exactly offer a happy, feel good conclusion, no matter how much we wish that for the poor girl following one disastrous situation after another. Played straight with no comic relief or satirical edge, the material might be too much - from an emotional standpoint - for some viewers.

That's particularly true when one eventually realizes that -- due to the current running time in the film when certain new developments occur and based on what's already transpired - that things will unravel again and again.

Pulling off such a sad story without it coming off as maudlin, melodramatic or manipulative is no easy task, but the filmmakers manage to prevent things from getting out of hand. Of course, kudos should definitely go to Lohman. Not only does she nearly appear in every scene, but she's also completely believable in them, as is her character's continual evolution. It's one of the better performances you'll see all year, especially from someone who's relatively new to the business.

It's no surprise that Michelle Pfeiffer ("I Am Sam," "What Lies Beneath") is good in her role, but some might be surprised by what an icy and manipulative character she plays. Although the film is a bit lacking regarding information about the pivotal murderous event - and the victim played by Billy Connolly ("An Everlasting Piece," "Mrs. Brown") is barely present - Pfeiffer nails the part and is completely credible and terrifying playing the character. She and Lohman have a terrific, several-minute encounter at the end of the film that's spellbinding to watch and caps off their brilliant acting partnership.

While occasionally bordering on stereotypes, the supporting characters are intriguing and embodied by mostly well-known performers. Robin Wright Penn ("The Pledge," "Unbreakable"), Renée Zellweger ("Chicago," "Bridget Jones's Diary") and Svetlana Efremova ("Phone Booth," "Prince of Central Park") play vastly disparate versions of foster mothers, while Noah Wyle ("Enough," TV's "ER") and Cole Hauser ("Heart's War," "Pitch Black") play some of their significant others who hover about the perimeter of the story and its characters.

Patrick Fugit, who was so terrific as the lead character in "Almost Famous," is rather good as Astrid's kindred spirit and fellow artist, even if we don't know many details about his character. That's not really a major drawback, however, as the point of the film is exploring the distinct and obviously not particularly healthy mother-daughter relationship.

Thanks to convincing and strong performances, decent writing and only the occasional smattering of melodrama or other contrived emotions, the film mostly succeeds at telling such a tale. Good, but not exactly what most would deem entertaining, "White Oleander" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed September 17, 2002 / Posted October 11, 2002


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