White Oleander

October, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Peter Kosminsky

Starring:Alison Lohman and Michelle Pfeiffer

Despite the constant remonstrances I receive from lovers of the novel, I'll admit a passion for nothing more in print fiction than a good hard-boiled detective story. Thus I often wonder, out of almost complete ignorance, if so many of the movies adapted from novels have the impact on the screen they had on the written page. For reasons that remain inexplicable, I did read The Horse Whisperer a few years back, and then saw Robert Redford direct himself in the movie version. I found his rather maudlin treatment far more satisfying than it's completely maudlin source. The same can also be true of non-fiction works; the film version of Dead Man Walking was more evenhanded than Sr. Jean Prejean's wonderful but obviously polemical examination of capital punishment.

How then to judge this movie, which can't escape the aura of a made for T.V. drama despite generally solid writing, two compelling performances, (plus one superb one) and a solid job in the fourth female lead? Is the film just trying to compress too much of the novel's plot into the screenplay? Are nuances omitted which cause motivations to carry less impact than they possessed in print? Does the Hollywood penchant for assigning unlikely roles to spectacularly beautiful actresses test our credibility too much? 

I suspect it’s the last two explanations which  ultimately sink Oleander; the writing is workmanlike and the performances range from competent to outstanding, yet it remains impossible to accept this quartet of gorgeous women as they suffer the multitude of problems which arise in the course of the two hours we're with them. Are they appealing? Absolutely. Are they credible? Hardly. Then how can we accept what befalls them in the soul-searing manner the makers of this movie intend? 

White Oleander traces the troubled adolescence of Astrid Magnussen, played by the appealing young actress Alison Lohman, who has enough costume changes here to justify opening her own boutique. She's being raised by an intensely fierce single Mom, (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has dedicated her life to the cause of her uncompromising art, but who has also fallen hard, (for the second time in Astrid's life) for the wrong man. When he cheats and deserts, she kills him and gets sent to prison, plunging daughter Astrid into the Southern California version of Dante's Inferno-the foster home care system. 

After barely surviving an episode in the household of Robin Penn Wright, an ex-alcoholic & druggie who's accepted Jesus as her personal savior, (and who's somehow convinced the authorities she can handle three foster kids along with her own rebellious teen age daughter and a live-in boyfriend with a roving eye) Astrid winds up at the other end of the L.A. social scene. She gets dropped into the home of a Malibu actress, (Renee Zellweger) whose career leaves her with lots of time on her hands and a desire to adopt the child she cannot have with her often absent filmmaker husband. Renee responds to the subsequent breakup of her marriage with a cold uncommunicative spouse by killing herself and allowing Astrid to find the body, which promptly sends Astrid to a halfway house before winding up in the clutches of a Russian immigrant woman who sells clothes in a stall on the beach in Venice while purring about the splendors of the American free enterprise system. And so it goes until Astrid, nearing 18 and looking like a cyberpunk groupie, finds true love with another of society's abandoned kids and goes off to make a life for herself, freed at last from the clutches of "the system" and her Mother's strident attempts to direct her daughter's metamorphosis into womanhood from the confines of a jail cell.

If all this sounds far too melodramatic to be either credible or engrossing, credit the film's partial success to the female leads' ability to execute quite an effective salvage job. Lohman, on screen almost constantly, weathers the disparate conditions she finds herself in with a dignified, vulnerable stoicism. Robin Penn Wright is especially fine in a small role as the trailer-trash Mom who dresses like an off-duty stripper while hauling her kids through born-again hell. As Mom, Pfeiffer provides a real jolt of electricity as the incarcerated artist willing to savage her daughter's feelings to provide guidance to a child she can't raise because of her imprisonment. The mother-daughter confrontations on visiting days give Pfeiffer the opportunity to create an unpleasant but nevertheless compelling character that just might be able to exert the type of control over her daughter the script requires. It's a demanding task, but Pfeiffer once again demonstrates that stunning good looks are not her only asset. 

In the end however, this one falls too completely into the "Stella Dallas" type vehicle that Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner et. al. cranked out for the big studios half a century ago. Alas, Hollywood's capacity for celluloid self-delusion lives on; despite its hard-edged struggle for naturalism, Oleander doesn’t begin to convey how the real world works. 

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