Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

White Oleander

Which came first: Oprah's Book Club or the prototypical "Oprah book"? Though it seems unduly cynical to suggest the former, how else to explain the clear thread that connects Oprah-endorsed bestsellers (and film adaptations) such as Where The Heart Is, Anywhere But Here, and Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood? Not all were official book-club selections, but each concerns the volatile-yet-loving relationship between mother and daughter, packaging themes of empowerment, independence, and personal growth in the sort of cozy psychology that sits well on the afternoon couch. White Oleander goes through the paces with a little more dignity than usual, which is a mark of either director Peter Kosminsky's refusal to overplay the melodrama, or his inability to wring it for all it's worth. There's enough incident in the film to keep Douglas Sirk busy for a few years—two crimes of passion, a suicide attempt, boarding-house tussles, alcoholism, a swimming-pool baptism—yet Kosminsky's workmanlike approach puts a lid on some combustible emotions. In her first lead role, Alison Lohman gives a quietly assured performance that tempers her big-name co-stars' showier flourishes, giving her teenaged character's emotional journey a satisfying sense of stability and perspective. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lohman's fiercely independent mother, a hot-blooded and deeply narcissistic L.A. artist who's thrown in jail after she murders her boyfriend (Billy Connelly) in a fit of jealousy. Thrown abruptly into the hands of child services, Lohman bounces from foster home to group home and back again, searching for a surrogate mother she can trust, even as her quest enrages her real mother. Among the prospective candidates are Robin Wright Penn, a born-again Christian with a weakness for the bottle; Renée Zellweger, a would-be actress from Malibu in the midst of a marital crisis; and Svetlana Efremova, a Russian émigré with savvy capitalist instincts. During periods of group-home limbo, Lohman develops a tentative friendship with Patrick Fugit, an unassuming misfit who shares her passion for art. In typical Oprah-book fashion, White Oleander lays out the psychology in plain letters, diagnosing each mother-figure in a few short glimpses and turning Lohman into a chameleon, destined to meld passively into each new environment. Though the film means to imply that she's still unformed in spite of her evident maturity, her frequent makeovers make her seem like Barbie or Woody Allen's Leonard Zelig, cycling from an innocent Bible-study look to Laura Ashley dresses to gang toughie to Goth princess. But beyond the endless sloganeering in Pfeiffer's dialogue, Lohman's relationship with her mother is genuinely troubled and affecting, because she not only has to contend with Pfeiffer's jealousy and manipulation, but also the possibility that she's beyond redemption. Of course, White Oleander backs off feebly at the last moment, but not before leaving a few faint scars on the skin.


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