White Oleander (PG-13)
Like the poisonous flower of its title, White Oleander is beautifully sun-drenched, thrives in drought and can be deadly. Adapted for the screen by Mary Agnes Donoghue from Janet Fitch's best-selling novel, the script plods dutifully along creating little dramatic tension and even less comic relief. Director Peter Kosminsky takes few risks, offering a fairly straight-up chronicle of the tragic and formative events in the life of young Astrid (Alison Lohman), a teen-ager who enters the foster care system when her mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) is imprisoned for murder.
Ingrid, a moderately successful, completely self-absorbed artist, has big plans for Astrid and continually offers her pearls of wisdom indicating that people like the two of them are better than those other schmucks out there. And though she continually brushes back her daughter's long blonde locks and offers her hugs and affection, we know she is emotionally neglectful when she shrugs off parents' night at Ingrid's school. "What could they possibly tell me about you that I don't know already?" Ingrid demurs. Touch, mother.
When Ingrid poisons her philandering boyfriend Barry, a guy she seems to barely know but whose rejection unhinges her completely, Astrid embarks on a series of voyages through the state's foster care system, ending up with colorful but deadly placements that stifle her initially but eventually teach her how to stand on her own.
Interspersed are visits to the prison where she must gradually escape from her mother's iron grip. Pfeiffer, icy and dangerous with delicate blue veins dancing beneath her perfect skin, is wonderfully manipulative in these scenes. On their first visit, when a sobbing Astrid falls into her arms, she coos: "Don't cry. We're not like that. We're the Vikings, remember?" Ouch.
If Ingrid is a white oleander, Astrid's first foster mother, Starr (Robin Wright Penn) is a flaming red hibiscus, flamboyant, messy and washed in the blood. A born-again, Bible-thumping former stripper with a passel of kids and a cute live-in boyfriend, it's hard to figure how she was ever approved as a foster parent, though one of the points the film seems to be making is that the system is dramatically flawed. We don't doubt that, but by the time the film has ended, poor Astrid has endured being shot, waking up in bed with a corpse, and being part of the black market, surely an exaggerated if not fantasized version of what is likely a more mundane though equally demoralizing experience.
Aside from Lohman, who carries the movie like a champ, Rene Zellweger gives the strongest portrayal of a deeply troubled though beautiful blonde. A failed actress married to a borderline abusive husband (Noah Wyle), Zellweger's Claire is sensitive and kind but fatally needy. Astrid becomes her crutch and the weight of her despair on the young girl is palpable.
The film's few light moments come when Astrid is institutionalized in a juvenile facility and falls in with Paul, a social services system veteran who takes her under his wing. Refreshingly played by young Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous, Paul is one of the few characters in the film who feels real and earthbound.
The coming-of-age story of a young woman who must break away from the strangling heartstrings of her tragically misguided mother, White Oleander is competently made but takes no risks with its potentially edgy material. When the film ended the day I saw it, the woman next to me let out a big sigh and said, "Well, I hope the book was better than this."