Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 10/11/02
White Oleander is only the second feature film by director Peter Kosminsky (after 1992s ambitious but critically disappointing Fiennes/Binoche vehicle Wuthering Heights, and several TV movies); although its plot suffers from some plausibility issues, it shows that Kosminskys 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 Astrids 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 artists 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 couldnt
help noticing that her mother didnt 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
Astrids 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 Astrids 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 films 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. Its 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 films textual flaws. ****