Chick flick with grit: Oleander might even please guys
How come Monty Python never thought of it? A gritty prison drama with an all-blonde cast!
Start with Michelle Pfeiffer, who showed in Dangerous Minds how tough she could be (not!). She's Ingrid Magnusson, the one who's in prison in this story that's really about her teenage daughter Astrid (brilliant newcomer Alison Lohman) on the outside. Ingrid has taught Astrid to be strong– "We're Vikings!"– but Ingrid's strength is more pathological than physical or emotional.
Astrid narrates the story, beginning with moments that look like a perfect mother-daughter relationship. ("Being with someone so dangerous is the last time that I felt safe.") It's a compliment to Lohman that she looks as if she really could be Pfeiffer's daughter.
We get a hint of Ingrid's selfishness and eccentricity when she blows off an obligation at Astrid's school. "She's an artist," the girl explains. "She doesn't care about things like Parents' Night." Ingrid's art consists of Polaroids she calls "mug shots," little knowing she'll be posing for mug shots herself soon.
Despite having taught Astrid, "Never let a man spend the night," Ingrid gets more involved than she'd like with Billy Connolly. The affair ends with her hurt and him dead. That's why she's sentenced to 35 years to life, and Astrid starts her odyssey through a series of foster homes.
With a child's ability to adapt, Astrid takes on characteristics of each of her foster mothers, arousing Ingrid's jealousy in each case. She accuses Astrid of "attaching yourself to anyone who shows you the slightest bit of attention because you're lonely. Loneliness is the human condition." Motherly advice: "Know what you want, and don't let the cattle get in the way."
The first foster mother is Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a trailer-trash Jesus freak whose boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser) becomes the first father Astrid's known. Next is Claire (Renee Zellweger), an insecure actress and "genuinely nice person" whose husband Mark (Noah Wyle) is away much of the time; and finally Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a Russian with a strong capitalist streak who lives like a gypsy.
Between homes, Astrid goes to a state orphanage where her mother's training comes in handy. There she's befriended by Paul (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous), who thinks she might be gay (she isn't) because she's "not interested in guys." They're both gifted artists– she sketches portraits, he does cartoons– so they bond; but Ingrid's imprint has left severe limits on Astrid's bonding ability.
White Oleander was adapted by Mary Agnes Donoghue from an Oprah-endorsed novel by Janet Fitch, and directed by London-born Peter Kosminsky in his American debut. I wasn't woman enough to appreciate Donoghue's best-known screenplay, Beaches, but I could handle White Oleander (despite a Stella Dallas moment that would have pushed it over the edge if it had gone on longer), although it's definitely a "chick flick." (After all, whatever hardships she endures, Astrid never runs out of hair coloring.)
Lohman is worthy of a part any actress her age would kill for (and therein lies the plot of another movie). Zellweger and Wright Penn nail their roles, and Pfeiffer has a good shot at a supporting Oscar if they don't try to push her as a lead.
The poisonous plant of the title, besides being a metaphor for beautiful-but-deadly Ingrid, may figure in the offscreen murder, the details of which are never spelled out. One of the best things about White Oleander is that it gives you credit for some intelligence instead of drilling every emotional point directly into your tear ducts.