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White Oleander

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: White Oleander

Starring: Renee Zellweger, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: October 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Robin Wright, Taryn Manning, Patrick Fugit, Alison Lohman, Noah Wyle, Stephen Root

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

If you've had a good education which means you have read Oliver Twist you'd get the idea that a kid without parents is in pretty bad shape. In Nineteenth Century England, you could get a crack across the face for asking for another bowl of soup in the better orphanages. Though the adorable Alison Lohman in the role of Astrid Magnussen is alleged to have seen more tumult in a bunch of foster homes than most of us have seen in a lifetime, don't believe it. She's pretty well off, even if her foster parents are as neurotic as her real-life mom. Coming off as a TV Misery-of- the-Week episode but redeemed by Peter Kosminsky's sharp eye for directing and for Michelle Pfieffer in her most expressive role, "White Oleander" entertains its female audience well even the men therein who may be inside the theater for no better reason than to ogle the fetching Ms. Magnussen.

Taking its name from the flower that looks charming on the outside but is poisonous within (sort of the opposite of a sabra), the film's title character (if you will) is an artist who not unlike many others in her field attracts men who are not always there for them. Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) has brought up a child, Astrid (Alison Lohman) who does not know her dad and who looks with awe as she watches mom relating to a new beau,Barry (Billy Connolly). They llook really good together in their upscale California restaurant. We find out that either looks are deceiving or that people are moody, because some time after their food date Ingrid murders the guy and gets sent to a facility that will spend 35 years to life to correct her.

Much of what we watch, in fact, shows us that what you see is not always what you get. In one foster home, for example, she enjoys a groovy relationship with a failed actress, Claire (Renee Zellweger), who lives in an upscale beach home, jogs at the water's edge, and by all appearances has it made. Only trouble is that her more successful actor man, Mark (Noah Wyle), is away from home most of the time and not always tied up with shooting pictures. In another foster home, Astrid gets along OK with a Bible-thumping ex-drunk, Starr (Robin Wright Penn), only to mess that deal up when Starr's husband understandably has more eyes for Astrid.

"White Oleander" is a coming-of-age story that hones in on young Astrid who is confused and often depressed despite her good looks, partly, it seems, because she does not know her biological father and appears afraid to push her mother into revealing the information. Her mom is the possessive type, going inwardly ballistic every time Astrid tells her in their jailhouse conferences about her terrific foster people. In fits of jealousy, Ingrid puts down everyone with whom the young woman is relating at the time. With the attention of a coeval comic-book artist, Paul (Patrick Fugit), she begins to realize herself, to become empowered as the slogan du jour would have it, which allows her not only to free herself from her mother's clutches but to make her mom see the evil of her ways and to let go.

"Where does a mother end and a daughter begin?" says the tagline. The answer, physically at least, is at the jailhouse gate. Psychologically it's at the moment that the adolescent sees herself as a person separate from her mom, to shuck off the bad counsel given to her while reveling in the thought that her artistic talent was developed by the same adult. "White Oleander" is a pleasant diversion, pretty conventional and free from eccentric film styles, which appears to have suffered in part from the absence of strong erotic scenes in order to squeeze out a PG-13.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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