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Laramie Movie Scope:
White Oleander

Great performances in a soap opera story

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 28, 2003 -- “White Oleander” is an emotionally powerful story with some electrifying performances. This is one of the best films of 2002. Why am I just now getting around to reviewing this? I just recently saw it on DVD and it was not shown in the local theaters here. If I had known how good a film it is, I would have made it a point to have seen it earlier. Even though I saw it on one of those crummy “full screen” DVDs (where up to two-thirds of the original picture goes missing), it blew my socks off.

“White Oleander” is a film about the age-old struggle between mothers and daughters. Daughters want to establish their own identities and mothers try to control their daughters and put their own identity stamp on them. Most films botch up this tension pretty thoroughly. Very few films get it right, and fewer still provide any kind of balance in the relationship. Usually, either the mother or the daughter dominates things. One recent film that did a pretty good job on this was “Freaky Friday.” Another recent film that did it pretty well was “Tumbleweeds.” This story provides a compelling mother-daughter relationship that is well-balanced.

Alison Lohman of “The Thirteenth Floor” stars as Astrid Magnussen, 12-year-old daughter of artist Ingrid Magnussen (played by Michelle Pfeiffer of “I am Sam”). At first, Astrid and Ingrid seem to have a healthy relationship, in a strange Bohemian, art-crowd kind of way. But then Ingrid goes ballistic when her boyfriend, Barry Kolker (Billy Connolly of “Mrs. Brown”) casts her aside. She vows revenge, and doesn't care at all what effect her actions will have on her daughter. She ends up in prison and Ingrid is tossed into the social services system, roaming from foster homes to juvenile treatment facilities. Ingrid remains a strong part of Astrid's life, exerting tentacles of control well beyond the walls of her cell.

Astrid, seemingly a fragile creature, turns out to be a survivor. Chameleon-like, she blends into the surroundings of her foster homes and juvenile centers, adapting as needed. She turns out to be as tough as she needs to be. Eventually, she has a face-to-face showdown with her mother, who has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that her daughter has gotten strong enough in the school of hard knocks to stand up to her. Astrid literally lays down the law to her destructive, manipulative mother, making an extremely odd bargain with her. She'll give her mother what she wants in return for the truth about Astrid's past, which remains shrouded in mystery until near the end of the film. It sounds like a cruel bargain, but it serves to break down barriers between mother and daughter, resulting in an almost normal relationship. Almost.

Three performances stand out in this drama, and all three are played by women. Usually, women's roles in movies are marginalized. Here, they are central to the film. The first is Alison Lohman. This is absolutely a breakout performance. She portrays a character who goes through enormous emotional and physical changes in the movie. She ages from 12 to 21 (she was 21 or 22 when she made this film) and she morphs from an angelic, baby-faced blonde to a tough goth-like woman with jet-black hair and pancake makeup. She shows enormous vulnerability, combined with a steel spine. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the manipulative mother, gives a stunning performance in this film. I was never that impressed with Pfeiffer's acting ability in previous films, but here she shows real power in fully realizing a very strong character. Another strong performance is given by Robin Wright Penn of “The Pledge,” who plays Starr Thomas, one of Astrid's foster parents in the film. Penn shows us a tough, gritty character with some hidden vulnerabilities.

Another good performance comes from Cole Hauser of “2 Fast 2 Furious”), who plays a sort of foster father to Astrid. Hauser plays a complex character who is both good and evil. Even though Hauser plays a character who does some bad things, he comes across as basically an O.K. person who is too weak to resist temptation. Another good character is Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit of “Almost Famous”). Trout is a young friend of Astrid. Fugit, as he did in “Almost Famous” does a great job of convincingly playing a character with loads of warmth and vulnerability. The cinematography, by Elliot Davis (“40 Days and 40 Nights”) is beautiful, particularly in the outdoor shots and well-lit interior shots. Director Peter Kosminsky, who had done some television work before, weaves the diverse strands of this movie together with great skill.

While the film has very compelling performances, the story does stray into soap opera-like melodrama at times. Astrid's journey through the juvenile justice system would have been interesting enough without the need for a suicide by one foster parent and Astrid being shot by another. All that is missing is a lengthy coma, followed by amnesia and a romance with a doctor. It seems pretty unlikely that one foster child would have to go through two such extreme experiences (and that is not all she has to endure). The story is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it is extremely unlikely. The story is based on a best-selling novel by Janet Fitch. The screenplay also relies a little too heavily on flashbacks to tell its story, but it does work. It does help, however, to revisit the first few minutes of the film (easily done with a DVD), since it is a scene from the very end of the story. It makes more sense after you have seen the rest of the film. Oh yeah, the title. It refers to a beautiful, but poisonous flower that grows wild in California. It also stands for a beautiful, but dangerous woman in the film.

The other thing about the movie that bugs me is that tired old Hollywood cliché of a born-again Christian as the gun-wielding killer. This cliché is almost as worn out as the prostitute with a heart of gold, or the short-tempered police commander. It is time for Hollywood to portray Christians in a way that is more connected with reality. Christianity is, after all, the largest religion in the world, so it stands to reason that there is a lot more variety out there than the narrow Hollywood stereotype of the none-too-smart, narrow-minded, wild-eyed killer. Can you imagine what a firestorm there would be if Hollywood consistently portrayed some minority group in this manner? On the other hand, the film shows what can happen when artists believe the extreme view that they don't need to adhere to any moral code. That is what happens to Astrid's mother. She thinks that being an artist and being beautiful gives her license to do anything. She finds out otherwise. The movie also demonstrates the terrible cost of extreme selfishness. Time after time the characters thoughtlessly indulge their darkest desires, resulting in death for others and tragedy for themselves. Yet, the story remains remarkably upbeat, a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit, even in those who are morally blind. This film rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)