‘White Oleander’ is not merely a chick flick

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 18, 2002

Checking out the previews for the film &uot;White Oleander,&uot; it’s easy to get the wrong impression.

Because the film’s storyline deals with a young woman’s coming of age in the harsh world that her mother inadvertently created, and virtually all of the main characters are female, it’s hard not to think something along the lines of &uot;Oh, come on, I saw this back in 1989 in ‘Steel Magnolias’ and earlier this year in ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’!&uot;

Fortunately, there’s a bit more to &uot;Oleander&uot; than that. The story of a young woman who tries desperately to maintain her inner health after her control-freak artist mother is sent to prison for murder, the flick’s based on the Janet Fitch novel of the same name.

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Alison Lohman is Astrid Magnusson, a budding artist who considers her beautiful-but-brash-and-manipulative mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) to be nothing short of ideal. Astrid has never had a solid male role model in her life, but she doesn’t seem to want one. Not at first.

Then, however, Ingrid is sentenced to 35 years in the slammer for poisoning her non-committal boyfriend, and Astrid’s world flips upside down and spins 180 degrees. She’s first shuttled to a foster home run by former-drunk-and-druggie-turned-psuedo-Christian Starr, whose attempts at good-naturedness are an obvious act. Then she heads to a juvenile home and meets love interest Paul (Patrick Fugit), a wannabe comic book artist.

Soon, Astrid (now starting to show the strain of not having stability at so young an age) is on her way again, this time with Claire (Renee Zellweger) an artist who can’t have children and whose husband (Noah Wyle) is just looking for an excuse to leave her in the dust.

It’s at this point that we truly start to feel for Astrid.

After so much toil and heartbreak, we honestly believe that she’s found a place of love, affection, and, above all, acceptance.

Claire seems to truly want to be a &uot;mother,&uot; offering Astrid a sense of warmth that she hasn’t known since her mother went to the Crossbar Hotel. Zellweger gives Claire a heartfelt quality that makes her seem frightened, not quite intelligent, and overwhelmed with her situation. But she desperately wants to do the right thing for herself and Astrid, and that makes her likeable, yet strangely fragile.

It’s this fragility that allows Ingrid (and Pfeiffer as we’ve never seen before) to truly show her obsessive, manipulative nature. During a visit to the prison, Ingrid haunts Claire and sabotages the relationship that she wants with Astrid. This breaks down the little self-confidence that Claire had, and leads to yet another tragedy in Astrid’s life. Now in more pain than ever, Astrid’s on her way back to the juvenile home, where Paul can’t seem to connect with her like he once did.

Here’s where Lohman, satisfactory until this point, kicks it into overdrive. She could have gone to one extreme, becoming either a frightened, withdrawn little girl who becomes a recluse to society or a furious street punk who reacts to everything with anger and violence. But she manages to show a side of both, and that makes her performance strangely believable. We can’t predict how we’d fare in the situation, but she gives it her all, taking all of her pain and channeling it into a sense of self-confidence that makes her strong without becoming overbearing, yet wild enough to let us know that she’s won’t make it on her own.

This is why &uot;Oleander&uot; is for everyone. As Astrid makes her painful journey from one heartbreaking experience to the other, we as people (not just women) could relate to her pain. Not because all of us are shuttled through foster homes and juvenile halls while our parents rot in prison, but because we have all experienced the agonies that growing up offers all too often. Remember arguing with your parents because you stayed out too late one Saturday night? Recall the time that you resented the fact that your father didn’t show how much he appreciated you? How about all the times that you complained to your friends that your folks just weren’t &uot;cool&uot;? I know I do. Astrid is an extreme extension of all of us, and she shows us a side that no one should have to undergo.

Back when the film &uot;Castaway&uot; first came out, some criticized it for not having a decisive ending. &uot;White Oleander&uot; heads down the same road. No one dies in the end (&uot;Magnolias&uot;), and the mother and daughter don’t walk off into the sunset, arm in arm (&uot;Ya-Ya&uot;). But that’s how life works, isn’t it? It’s impossible to know what to do in every situation, and problems don’t always get resolved like we’d hope.

So in that regard, &uot;Oleander&uot; isn’t an inspiring film. But who could expect it to be so? It’s a painful journey of a young woman attempting to find herself amid turmoil after her mother abandoned her (in favor of herself). So a story like that probably shouldn’t have the type of ending that we normally see in the film world.

Grade: B+