Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 10/11/02

White Oleander is only the second feature film by director Peter Kosminsky (after 1992’s ambitious but critically disappointing Fiennes/Binoche vehicle Wuthering Heights, and several TV movies); although its plot suffers from some plausibility issues, it shows that Kosminsky’s style is certainly evolving into something worth attention. A coming-of-age story about a young girl forced to live in a series of foster homes after her single mother goes to prison for murder, it exudes atmosphere, intercutting between telling flashbacks and present-day, and features talented actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright-Penn, and Renée Zellweger, but none more than the young, relatively unknown Alison Lohman, who plays the leading role with a sensitivity and technique equal to that of her more experienced co-stars. The story, based on the novel by Janet Fitch, adapted by Mary Agnes Donoghue, while sometimes so unbelievable it becomes unintentionally comic, provides a view into the life of an orphan who is jerked around to the point of losing her identity, showing how the radically varied lifestyles she encounters shape her into the woman she becomes.

Astrid Magnussen (Lohman), a young L.A. artist working on a complex project at the beginning of the movie, begins her story by attempting to explain her relationship with her fiercely independent artist mother Ingrid (Pfeiffer), who, although she never participated in mainstream parental activities like Astrid’s school parents’ night, tried to teach Astrid to think for herself and not accept advice, praise, or criticism from other people who are too ignorant to understand the artist’s soul. “Never explain, never apologize,” she would say; the additional implication being never love, never trust, never become dependent. While Astrid tried to accept this weighty and cynical outlook, she couldn’t help noticing that her mother didn’t always practice what she preached, becoming romantically entangled with a charming playboy (Billy Connolly) whose infidelity eventually caused her to become jealous enough to poison him. After Ingrid is convicted and sentenced to 35 years to life, Astrid is placed with the first of several wildly unstable foster families.

This film is more a melodrama than a realistic representation of the orphan life, since the families portrayed would probably never be considered remotely suitable by an actual adoption agency, but it provides an interesting cross-section of humanity as seen through the eyes of impressionable youth. It also provides an opportunity for Lohman to display the full breadth of her acting technique, which she does impressively. Taken as a kind of impressionistic theme study in the influences of parental figures, it portrays Astrid’s several mothers as a collection of wildly and intentionally varied stereotypes, including a born-again Christian sexpot and former drug and alcohol abuser (Wright-Penn) whose religious devotion is matched only by her petty jealousy; a depressed struggling actress (Zellweger) whose emotional frailty makes her more like a weepy big sister than a mom; and a cynical, opportunistic Russian-American saleswoman (Svetlana Efremova) whose unfaltering devotion to the almighty dollar serves to temper Astrid’s youthful idealism. Finally she finds a kindred spirit in a fellow orphan named Paul (Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous thanks to a movie by the same name), who draws highly detailed and emblematic comic-book style artworks. Adding to the subjective nature of the film is the fact that Astrid continually sketches everyone who touches her life, good and bad.

Lohman is on screen for practically all of the film’s 110 minutes; her ever-evolving character must go through numerous life-changing experiences and react to each with an understanding of the cumulative effects of all those that have gone before. It’s not an easy part, especially given the radically overblown nature of some plot elements, but the 23-year-old actress pulls it off with grace, and her large supporting cast helps to compensate for the film’s textual flaws. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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