Cinema Signal:

Orphans of the Living: Stories of America's Children in Foster Care

. "White Oleander"

Janet Fitch, the author of "White Oleander", tells us in an interview, "Oleander is a plant that grows well in the worst situations." Thus she uses it to symbolize a young girl who treads her way through various foster homes and child care facilities when her mother goes to prison for murder. Oleander is a symbol for the mother, as well. "It is also very poisonous, and the color white is an ongoing symbol in the book... for the mother Ingrid who sees things very much in black and white." In the movie made from the book, screenplay author Mary Agnes Donoghue and director Peter Kosminsky, translate the seriousness of the themes into cinematic force and with a cast that does its utmost to penetrate and expose the entanglements and emotions of their characters.

Indeed Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a dangerously controlling person and an accomplished artist who is convinced of her superiority over others and repeatedly attempts to indoctrinate that idea in Astrid, her daughter (Alison Lohman) lest she adopt a less privileged position in society. One thing Ingrid is not going to have is a daughter who is less than her image of her, and awareness of her greater worth is part of that image by virtue of being her daughter.

When Ingrid murders a man and goes to prison for a long time she is no less likely to maintain that lock on her daughter's intellectual and emotional development, even as Astrid is led through a maze of conflicting influences in her foster home experiences.

First there's Starr (Robin Wright Penn) who takes her as a companion to her daughter with the added income of the foster program very much in mind. But when young Astrid, developing the hormonal awareness of her sexuality is aroused by Starr's attractive boyfriend, Bill Greenway (Scott Allan Campbell), Starr detects the threat to her relationship and sends Astrid back to foster placement limbo.

She is temporarily put in a facility for waiting foster kids of all genders and ages and meets awkward Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit, of "Almost Famous" fame), developing a more appropriate bond.

Shunning most of the foster parent wannabes who might take her, she picks Marlena, a woman who will teach her a thing or two about the underworld of commerce and introduces her to the street values of commerciality and exploitation, and sexy punk garb and makeup.

After an escape back to her foster home reality she hooks up with Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger), a struggling actress in the Hollywood mileau who lives comfortably with her successful actor husband Mark (Noah Wyle) who seems always "out of town" on movie jobs. Claire embraces Astrid like no one ever has, and a close bond of endearment visits Astid's personality for the first time.

Through all this, from ages 15 to 18, Astrid's adaptation to the styles and ideas of her surrogate parents is displayed in her wardrobe, as a physical signpost to her current states of mind and changing values and levels of awareness. None of which is lost on Ingrid when Astrid visits her in the jailyard. But no change in her daughter is to be accepted without Ingrid's proper interpretation and warnings. The process of indoctrination is never abandoned. It's only when Ingrid senses the influence Claire Richards is having on Astrid that she shifts gears and arranges for Claire to visit her where she can have a chance to play her mind games to control a perceived threat to the identity she's chosen for her daughter. Nobody messes with that image.

That she has the power to do such things is a telling character creation by an author who observes the possibilities of a very dark, fixated mind. That Michelle Pfeiffer brings her to life with such conviction, leaping all out into the manipulative dimensions of this character, suggests the attainment of any superb actress's dream to explore the possibilities of their gifts.

Alison Lohman couldn't do better in making the movie audience worldwide aware of her than by leading us through this maze of conflicts as a young girl, displaced by circumstance, going through an evolutionary change and demonstrating how we are all sum totals of the influences that enter our world.

Renee Zellwegger's natural warmth plays pitch perfect for a woman with a need to fill a hole of coldness in her life. Noah Wyle, as a playboy, philandering husband fits the Hollywood image of successful young actors, but with enough individuality to avoid the stereotype. We need to see more of this particular young actor on the big screen.

Robin Wright Penn does no less than anyone in bringing us a superficial woman of trashy tastes and desperate motivations. There is an emptiness in the woman but a fullness in the portrayal.

"White Oleander" is this year's "Lantana", another movie using a plant as a symbol for the human story, another movie with serious themes that rise up to the most thoughtful subjects for movie treatment. This is the kind of material good actors die for, those who live for getting their minds and talents around complex characters who are miles away from who they are yet inhabit the same planet and deserving of illumination. One feels the oncoming attention to this fine work and a smattering of awards and nominations. Kudoes to all of them.

Elliot Davis' cinematography conjures all the realities of gloom and hope needed and embraces Astrid's changes with an enhancing palette.

The screenplay and its source material is nothing less than a hugely intelligent exposure of serious themes concerning human behavior. Its taste is exemplified in the way it puts details of the murder aside while exploring the more important matter of its effect on the indivuals directly involved. It avoids the sentimentality that such material could easily fall prey to and sticks rigidly to the consequences of possessiveness.

Author Fitch says, "we are here to understand and care about the human condition, to become more human." This film might well help her achieve that lofty goal.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
I've seen the movie and agree with the review

i like michele playing the mother of her daughter.

                                                           ~~ ashley g. 
Perceptive & well written
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 8

                                                           ~~ Louise 

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