Peter Kosminsky’s debut feature is a Dickensian story recast for the age of Oprah. In “While Oleander,” a well-meaning but episodic and ultimately pat movie based on Janet Fitch’s popular novel, the young protagonist suffers as many tribulations as Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but in this case she’s a female–a teen named Astrid (Alison Lohman), who’s shuffled from one disastrous foster home to another, and committed periodically to a brutal juvenile facility, after her no-nonsense artist mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) is incarcerated for killing an unfaithful boyfriend (Billy Connolly). She first spends time in the crowded home of redneck Jesus freak Starr (Robin Wright Penn), who already has two adorable younger foster kids as well as a rebellious teen daughter of her own, but who goes off the deep end when she thinks that Astrid is getting too close to her likable live-in boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser). After a stay in the county facility, she’s welcomed into the comfortable home of sweet but nervous actress Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger), whose suspicions about the infidelities of her often-absent husband Mark (Noah Wyle) are fed by the manipulative Ingrid until the pathetic young woman takes drastic action. Another stay in the group facility follows this tragedy, until Astrid becomes one of a slew of girls taken in by Rena (Svetlana Efremova), a hard-bitten Russian emigre who uses them in a profitable flea-market business. The outcome of the narrative is upbeat in a bittersweet way, as Astrid gains a fuller knowledge of her past and the maturity to understand her mother’s own pain, as well as the inner strength to survive her ordeal; she also finds a low-key romance with an aspiring cartoonist (Patrick Fugit) she meets while in juvie hall.
Although one may sympathize with the motive behind “White Oleander”–the portrayal of a young girl’s journey of self-realization and her triumph over adversity–and admire the considerable talent that’s been showered on the story both behind and in front of the camera, he must admit that there’s a lot of the Lifetime Network or Oprah’s Oxygen channel in the picture. It’s grittier than films produced for those outlets and boasts a far starrier cast, but otherwise the differences are surprisingly minimal; despite the occasional rough patches and contemporary setting this is very much a woman’s picture of the old school, calculated to extract tears from the tension that develops between mother and daughter and to provide an emotional catharsis as the younger woman comes melodramatically to terms with her mother’s failings and the difficulties they’ve caused. Fannie Hurst would have been proud to have penned it.
The saving grace of the picture is the cast. Newcomer Lohman is very effective as Astrid, growing convincingly from a frightened adolescent to a hardened young woman; it’s a performance of surprising conviction and depth. Pfeiffer adopts a stern, cynical pose that’s a trifle arch but preferable to the frazzled turn she last gave (in “I Am Sam”); and though Penn and Efremova seize too easily on the obvious facets of Starr and Rena to create caricatures, Zellweger manages to make the mousy Claire more touching a figure than she has any right to be. The males are mostly as incidental as those in the “Ya Ya Sisterhood,” but Fugit is pleasantly laid- back as the supportive Paul, and Hauser exudes a rough charm as Ray. Wyle, on the other hand, is a yuppie cliche, and Connolly is shoved so far into the background that he’s almost invisible. Kosminsky does a workmanlike job, though he should have reined in his penchant for intrusive flashback inserts, and Elliot Davis’ cinematography is classy. An especially irritating contribution comes from Thomas Newman, whose music, with its repeated string chords and tinkly piano runs, recalls far too many more effective scores using similar forces.
As a test of whether “White Oleander” will appeal to you, you might think back to your reaction to 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted,” with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. That too was a female- oriented soap opera, somewhat more florid that this film but in the same serious vein. If it moved you, the chances are “Oleander” will too. If not, or you’re a male between 15 and 25, you should probably check out something like “The Transporter” instead.