Because of exceptional performances by Michelle Pffeifer, Robin Wright Penn, and Renee Zellweger as well as by newcomer Alison Lohman, White Oleander succeeds in depicting the dark side of a mother’s love. Dark, is right. I’m shocked by the depth of cruelty Pfeiffer projects here as the manipulative mom. In a few scenes, I felt she was talking right to me instead of to her daughter, and she actually frightened me. Calling Dr. Sigmund Freud!
According to British director Peter Kosminsky, making his feature film debut with White Oleander, Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath) really had a lock on the character of Ingrid, the narcissistic mother who’s sent to prison for murdering her lover (Billy Connolly). "There’s a directness and authority to the way she plays the part that is quite compelling and very moving to watch," he says.
And Pfeiffer explains, "I’m not sure it’s possible to completely understand Ingrid. I think she’s somewhat of an enigma even to herself. . . She says things that no one else will say because it isn’t nice, but Ingrid is not concerned with being nice. She zeroes in on the weakness. It was challenging playing someone who could be so utterly cruel; I had to fight my natural impulse to soften her and take some of the edge off."
Representing the softer side of mothering in White Oleander, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary) touched me deeply with her poignant portrayal of Claire, Astrid’s (Lohman) favorite foster mother. Tender, fragile, and vulnerable – Claire seems to be everything Ingrid is not. Unfortunately, neither Ingrid nor Claire’s husband (Noah Wylie) appreciate the bond developing between Astrid and Claire.
A previous foster parent didn’t appreciate Astrid either – but for an entirely different reason. Enter Starr (played with wonderful flamboyance by Penn), a born-again Christian who ends up believing her latest boyfriend (Cole Hauser) fancies Astrid. Penn (Unbreakable) describes Starr’s motivation for taking in a foster child as primarily financial, but she also sees something deeper in this action. "In a selfish way, it’s her salvation for having sinned, for having been an alcoholic and a stripper."
Holding her own with three of today’s most competent actresses, Lohman (The Thirteenth Floor) displays both range and maturity in the role of Astrid. Appearing in practically every scene, she commands attention with her expressive face and lovely voice. She practically glows in a little romantic sequence with Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous), who also excels as her artistic boyfriend. Granted, I was worried during Lohman’s opening narration, which seemed mumbled to me, but she soon became easy to understand.
Based on Janet Fitch’s popular novel, White Oleander paints a dismal picture of the perils faced by foster children. But it also tells an involving story of a young woman’s search for independence from a mother who resembles the title flower – beautiful outside, poisonous inside.
VIEWER WARNING: White Oleander sometimes moves at a snail’s pace. Please be patient. It’s a drama, not an action flick.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence.)