Good Lord, there hasn't been this much blond hair onscreen since the Von Trapp children sang and danced their way across the Alps in The Sound of Music. The fact that these golden locks belong to the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, and Renée Zellweger suggests that this, too, is going to be one big ol' Hollywood picture. And it is.
White Oleander is the latest in a string of studio-financed femme-oriented films that try to elevate what is essentially melodramatic B-movie material to A-level status through a veneer of authenticity, a sense of gravitas, and, even more pointedly, a cast of top-dollar -- and gorgeous -- stars. But no matter how restrained the direction or unsentimental the performances -- and White Oleander scores points for both -- there is no escaping the semi-trashy-but-oh-so-life-affirming ring of the plotline.
Based on the best-selling novel by Janet Fitch (an "Oprah's Book Club" selection), the film stars relative newcomer Alison Lohman (TV's Pasadena) as 15-year-old Astrid, a shy, sensitive girl who lives with her strong-willed and unpredictable mother, Ingrid (Pfeiffer). Beautiful, seductive, impulsive, judgmental, and cruel, Ingrid is the classic narcissist. Astrid is in awe of her mother, but also recognizes her volatile nature and caters to it, rather than incur her mother's wrath.
That Ingrid loves her daughter is never in doubt, but her behavior is motivated so much by her own egocentric wishes and desires that she does not see the damage she does to the girl. Astrid, who has acquired her mother's considerable artistic talent, but thankfully, not her domineering, self-absorbed personality, basically lives in her mother's shadow.
When, in a fit of passion, Ingrid murders her unfaithful lover and is sentenced to prison, Astrid is shipped off to a succession of foster homes. Her first foster mother (Wright Penn) is a Spandex-clad former stripper turned born-again Christian; the second (Zellweger) is a sweet but fragile actress with a crumbling marriage; the third (Svetlana Efremova) is a savvy Russian émigrée with a virulently capitalist streak. Astrid, who has never really forged her own identity, tries desperately to fit into each new foster home, but her efforts are complicated not only by destructive conditions at each home, but also by Ingrid's still powerful -- and often corrosive -- influence over her daughter.
At heart, White Oleander (named for a bush whose flowers are both beautiful and poisonous) is about a mother-daughter relationship and an adolescent girl's attempts to become her own person, but the story's romance-novel, soap-opera qualities keep getting in the way of any genuine emotional involvement.
The two most impressive performances in the film are Cole Hauser, as Wright Penn's boyfriend, who struggles with his own attraction to Astrid, and Pfeiffer, who really connects with her role, conveying an ice-cold hardness that seems born of the hottest passion. Her performance here more than makes up for her abysmal appearance opposite Wright Penn's real-life hubby in last year's sickeningly saccharine I Am Sam.