|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 10 March 2003|
“White Oleander” doesn’t easily fit any genre category. Broadly speaking, it’s a drama with many coming-of-age and mother/daughter issues, but its perpetual sense of underlying menace – the use of poisonous flowers in the title is extremely apt – gives it an uncommon edge. On the other hand, the film is far too elliptical, character-driven and free-wheeling to be classified as a thriller. Danger lurks in some unexpected places for Astrid (Alison Lohman), but while the effect is cumulative, there isn’t a villain with a scheme, or indeed any malicious figures with long-range plans. Fatal havoc is wrought here by people who are desperate rather than evil.
Lohman’s Astrid is a Los Angeles teenager who has long ago adjusted to life with her ultimately loving but awesomely self-involved artist mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). When Ingrid is arrested for murdering her boyfriend (Billy Connolly), Astrid is cast upon the seas of the foster care system, where every household has its own agenda. First stop is a couple (Robin Wright, Cole Hauser) who are already fostering two little boys and an adolescent girl in full rebellion. The lady of the house is a manically cheerful born-again fundamentalist who talks Bible nonstop, even though she’s not married to her mate. The situation takes some drastic turns and Astrid winds up back in a group home, where she suffers abuse at the hands of her fellow wards of the state but is also befriended by a kindred spirit and fellow artist (Patrick Fugit), whose goodwill she accepts with great wariness. Then Astrid is placed in another foster home with a wealthy, lonely woman (Renee Zellweger) whose husband (Noah Wyle) is absent much of the time. The situation would seem ideal, but Ingrid’s reach is very long.
“White Oleander” started life as a novel by Janet Fitch. In one of this DVD’s best innovations, Fitch is recruited for the audio commentary track, along with director Peter Kosminsky and producer John Wells, so there is much discussion of changes in both broad strokes and specifics between book and movie. The conversation will be of interest to anyone who’s curious about the adaptation process, especially when Kosminsky and Fitch (very cordially and respectfully) compare notes on their different views of how the characters feel in key scenes.
The filmmakers, working from a perceptive script by Mary Agnes Donoghue, create an authentic, identifiable sense of how weird it is for a teen to recognize that a parent is not merely fallible but actively striving to impart a toxic outlook. Lohman is perpetually fascinating, Pfeiffer is tough to the point of being chilling and the story is compelling, all of which makes “White Oleander” extremely effective. Lohman convinces us that Astrid is guarded while still allowing us to read her intimately at all times – we see dismay, love, hopelessness and resentment with enormous clarity through the implacable façade she presents to the world much of the time. Zellweger is especially affecting as the failed actress/would-be mom who is profoundly eager for Astrid’s friendship (and the filmmakers have managed to procure a clip of Zellweger in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” as a sample of her character’s career). Penn has a field day as the colorful Star, masking panic with sunny babble as she tries to maintain what she thinks of as a normal life.
Donoghue’s dialogue is almost always refreshingly natural and spare – she does succumb to the temptation to get talky near the end once or twice – while director Kosminsky makes striking use of color to influence the moods of scenes, giving us an artist’s perspective on what’s happening without becoming self-consciously arty.
Use of sound is subtle but effective, with some especially astute use of ambient noise, like the low buzz of a light filling in a silence, or the combination of a spare piano and ambient air as Astrid heads to yet another new abode. While this doesn’t exactly qualify as reference disc sequences, there are some impressively realistic door poundings in Chapters 4, 6 and 7 – if for some reason you’ve turned your back on the monitor, you may automatically check to see if you’ve got a visitor – a persuasive gunshot in Chapter 9 and startling, dimensional objects hitting the floor in Chapter 19. Sheryl Crow sings the appealing and apt closing credits ballad “Safe and Sound” in Chapter 28.
Besides the audio commentary track, there are two similar and agreeable if fairly standard making-of featurettes, and a collection of very good deleted scenes that all work very well – presumably they were cut for running time rather than any fault of with the scenes themselves.
“White Oleander” explores matters that few American films about women delve into in this depth. While the film doesn’t plunge into all-out horror, it does an uncommonly involving job of illustrating what it’s like to try to put yourself together as a person while coping with the uneasy sense that everything you’ve learned so far is wrong.