Astrid (Alison Lohman) is just 15 when her beautiful but uncompromising artist mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), shoots her boyfriend (Billy Connolly) and is arrested. Left in the care of various foster mothers (Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger) Astrid comes face to face with their own problems and struggles to survive - adrift yet monitored & controlled by her mother even from prison. She slowly unravels her individuality, confronting her mother in a bid to be free. And only then do they find a true bond.
Review by Louise Keller:
Although Michelle Pfeiffer is not the star of White Oleander, a coming of age story about a young girl trying to separate herself from that of her obsessive mother, her persona and presence haunt us throughout the screen adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel. It’s powerful performance and Pfeiffer masterfully brings a touch of vulnerability to the selfish, possessive, neurotic and claustrophobic Ingrid. But it is not, and cannot be enough to save this mother/daughter story from being simply another glossy Hollywood melodrama. A cross between the chick flick Anywhere But Here, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood amd a twist on the father/son Life As A House theme, the mainstay of the film lies in the strong cast of women whose stylised images form the bleached beauties of the keyart. But perhaps this heralds the problem, in which emotional honesty is traded for synthetic veneer. Adapted for the screen by Mary Agnes Donoghue, who penned the screenplay for Beaches, while we connect to our protagonist Astrid in her search and struggle to escape the emotional clutches of her mother, we never experience the kind of emotional connection that the journey should bring. This is melodrama twisted by the hands of a manipulating Hollywood machine and we are always felt conscious of the filmmaker’s intentions rather than his achievements. Melodrama seems to gnaw its way through scenes that should simply flow and break our hearts. But the performances are outstanding with Alison Lohman exuding despair, uncertainty and hope as fifteen year old Astrid who yearns to become her own person. I love Robin Wright Penn’s gaudy, self-doubting Starr and we warm to Renee Zellweger’s anxious Claire who only needs a puff of wind to knock her over. The credentials are good – from the cinematography to Thomas Newman’s lovely score, but despite this outstanding cast, White Oleander is a less than satisfying emotional experience, and leaves us wanting. The title may be reminiscent of Lantana (a troublesome weed), but Oleander (a poisonous evergreen shrub with beautiful flowers) lacks the power and heart of the former.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Made before Chicago and One Hour Photo, White Oleander is so heart hugging yet flawed that its distributors have been trying to find the best moment to release it for maximum exposure. The cast certainly deserve that care. They, en masse, rescue this film from the humdrum (and even overcome the drawbacks of a hand held camera): outstanding performances, delivering characters we can almost touch. But this is another example of producers falling in love with the characters in a book and thinking that is sufficient to make a great movie. That’s only sufficient to create great characters on screen – which, true enough – is a long way towards a great movie. But not enough. The inner world is missing, narration notwithstanding. At the preview screening (where men were heavily outnumbered by women) there were noises of appreciation and association – but no signs of significant emotional connection. Indeed, I am trying to convey an ambivalence in my own response to the film. I alternate between fidgety and engaged. There are pluses and minuses: pluses like Michelle Pfeifer’s one-eyed, self-deluding, selfish mother, and minuses like the ambiguous scenes between Astrid and the boyfriend of her first foster mother. This scene so unsettles us, not sure who is doing what to whom – if anything. I maintain that producers should take shock therapy whenever they feel the urge to make a movie from a book they like. Usually, the shock therapy will be less painful in the long run ….
Email this article
Mixed: 2 (Andrew, Louise)
WHITE ORLEANDER (M)
CAST: Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, Billy Connolly, Svetlana Efremova, Patrick Fugit, Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle
PRODUCER: John Wells, Hunt Lowry
DIRECTOR: Peter Kosminsky
SCRIPT: Mary Agnes Donoghue
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Elliot Davis
EDITOR: Chris Ridsdale
MUSIC: Thomas Newman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Donald Graham Burt
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Becker Entertainment
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 12, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Magna Pacific
VIDEO RELEASE: December 10, 2003