White Oleander (2002) – movie review

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Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Billy Connolly

Director: Peter Kosminsky

Anyone wondering what to expect from WHITE OLEANDER can glean all they need to know from a cursory glance at the selected previous credits of the production team: BEACHES, DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD, and THE JOY LUCK CLUB suggest that we are among people who are artful practitioners of the earnest chick-flick. A strong female cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Rene Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn) underlines this fact and all three actresses get to mix a smidgen of glam posturing with the much sought-after harder stuff (murder, attempted murder, emotional breakdown, suicide, alcoholism), some of it played sans make-up (the Holy Grail of the serious actress). However, despite the heavyweight presence of these three, it is newcomer Alison Lohman who drives the film in the central role of Los Angeles teenager Astrid Magnusson. It is an assured performance from Lohman as the impressionable Astrid grows from vulnerable and reticent fifteen year-old to a spiky and confident young woman, learning from – and losing – a variety of mentors en route.

The film begins with Astrid living with her inspirational but intellectually headstrong and emotionally selfish mother Ingrid (Pfeiffer). Their happy medium is disrupted when Ingrid is arrested for the murder of her equally self-obsessed sometime boyfriend. And so begins Astrid’s journey into young womanhood under the tutelage of a succession of contrasting foster mothers: the blousy ex-alcoholic stripper (Wright Penn) who has found God (although, being a sensible sort of chap, the Almighty endeavours to seek out a better hiding place asap); the sweet but emotionally fragile actress (Zellweger) who cannot have children of her own and subconsciously inures herself to her husband’s infidelity; and the bohemian immigrant with a keen business sense (Svetlana Efremova). And if these extremes were not enough of a master class from the school of hard knocks, in-between stints with this gamut of governesses Astrid is forced to reside in a tough children’s home where any signs of weakness are exploited by her rough-hewn co-boarders.

As Astrid grows older and learns more about herself and the nasty ol’ world that awaits her, she undergoes a series of character transformations (each one seemingly marked by a trip to an increasingly intoxicated hair stylist). Initially a dreamy flower child, she then attempts a brief dalliance as a Lolita-lite before flexing her muscles as a knife-wielding loner with short hair and battle scars; thence on to her designer-attired Barbie era, before attaining a degree of self-assurance as a raven-haired multi-pierced goth, and culminating in her emergence as a creatively inclined artist and muse blessed with inner peace.

Despite being rife with traumatic incident and emotional upheaval WHITE OLEANDER does not ‘deal with’ issues, preferring instead to use them as drivers for the plot. It is a glossy, sometimes superficial, treatment that succeeds in the manner of a superior soap opera blessed with consummate performances; Wright Penn in particular enjoying herself flouncing around in her skimpies armed with booze, guns, and bibles. Male characters are peripheral and male viewers may be thin on the ground for a film about the growing pains of a teenage girl; however, women in the mood for a spat of empathetic sisterhood will revel in the melodramatic bluster of it all.

4 out of 6 stars