'Oleander' pleases with top acting, compelling story

by Lindsay Barnes | 11/4/02 6:00am

Director Peter Kominsky's sophomore effort in film, "White Oleander," seems to have suffered a fate that is all too common in Hollywood -- its marketing campaign doesn't match the movie itself. While being sold as a standard Lifetime Channel Movie of the Week, this is a film with a compelling story and effective performances, and it is accessible to both men and women.

Based on Janet Finch's best-selling novel, the movie is about artist and single mother Ingrid Magnusson (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her adolescent daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman). In an opening voice-over, Astrid comments that, "Being with someone so dangerous was the last time I felt safe." This danger is understandable from the first time Ingrid appears on screen: while she appears to be her daughter's best friend, she is at the same time icy and manipulative.

It turns out that Astrid's fears were well-seated, as Ingrid is arrested on charges that she killed her unfaithful boyfriend. As Ingrid is hauled off to jail, Astrid is hauled off by children's services and begins her journey through California's foster-home system.

Over the course of the film, Astrid resides in a wide variety of situations. She first stays with Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a Bible-thumping trailer-park mother of two, and her gruff boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser). After some time, it becomes clear that while she preaches the Gospel, Starr doesn't exactly walk in God's way, as her alcoholism leads her to hurt everything that she touches.

From there, she goes to McKinney Hall, a home for orphans and juvenile delinquents, where the violent environment forces her to learn how to defend herself. She also meets Paul (Patrick Fugit), a boy who shares her passion for art. The shared interest of the two teenagers eventually results in romantic involvement.

Just as something is starting to blossom between Astrid and Paul, she is transported yet again, this time to live with struggling actress Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger) and her Hollywood power-player husband Ron (Noah Wyle). While Claire is able to provide the love and friendship that Ingrid never was able to provide, she is still very much a girl like Astrid.

The one constant for Astrid is visiting her mother in prison. Each visit, Astrid looks different as she struggles to find her identity and changes to fit each new environment. And with each visit, Ingrid grows colder and more manipulative as she scolds Astrid for her new traits.

When Astrid dabbles in Christianity during her stay with Starr, Ingrid denounces organized religion, telling Astrid, "These people are the enemy." When Astrid shows her mother Paul's drawings, Ingrid dismisses them as "cartoons." As the movie goes on and Ingrid becomes bitterer, Astrid also starts to piece together in her mind the crime that put her mother in jail.

Bottom line: this is a good movie. Every good movie must start with a good story, and "White Oleander" has one. In both Fitch's original story and screenwriter Agnes Donoghue's adaptation, there are several curveball plot developments that leave the audience on the edge of their seats. It would have also been very easy for this movie to fall into a typical Hollywood ending, but the temptation is resisted. The ending is a satisfying one that, unlike so many films, does not insult the viewer's intelligence.

A story like this demands especially strong performances from its actors, and this cast delivers. Newcomer Lohman plays Astrid with such attention to detail that her various transformations throughout the film are very noticeable yet seamless in transition. Wright Penn looks and sounds every bit like the trailer park mother, even if her role is a bit one dimensional. Zellweger's performance is deglam-ourized in her role as Claire, making her all the more believable as an actress struggling to get more than two seconds of screen time.

But the real standout in this cast is Pfeiffer, whose turn as the calculating Ingrid is hard-hitting and convincing. She never quite flies off the handle, but her demeanor is that of a coiled viper waiting to strike. From the tone she speaks in to her mannerisms, every bit of Pfeiffer's performance gives off an air of danger.

Combined with some great handheld camera shots and good editing, "White Oleander" is an all around pleasing movie with a smart story and smart performances to back it up.