An Oprah Book of the Month gets the Lifetime Movie of the Week treatment in Peter Kosminsky’s consistently hysterical White Oleander. Fourteen-year-old Astrid (Alison Lohman) hits the foster home circuit when her self-absorbed artist mother (Michelle Pfeiffer channeling Joan Crawford) goes to jail for pureeing the titular flower and serving the resulting milk shake to a naughty boyfriend. Astrid takes on a new personality with each new foster home: she raises hell for a horny, fuscia-loving Jesus freak (Robin Wright Penn); plays Oprah for a depressed actress (Renée Zellweger); and goes goth for a flea-market babushka (Svetlana Efremova). As Astrid’s foster house soulmate, Patrick Fugit helps the troubled teen negotiate her fear of an aggressive Latina (when Astrid cuts her blond locks, the hotheaded mami screams, “Hey look, it’s la puta!”). Other memorable mentions of la puta include “Try it again and I’ll take you out bitch!” and, my favorite, “You used to like it fine before you started doing that little bitch.” Lohman and Fugit’s scenes are remarkably tender though their relationship is sadly underdeveloped. Astrid’s psych-art project, which doubles as the film’s closing sequence, brings the film’s many forced metaphors together for anyone who wasn’t paying attention during the film’s two-hour running time. Key here is Pfeiffer’s constant speechifying. Her letters to Astrid evoke her character’s flair for the dramatic and have been seemingly pieced together from bromides and truisms cut out from issues of O Magazine. “I can hear the women screaming in their cells,” begins one letter. Ingrid (Pfeiffer) admires her daughter’s ability to identify evil yet she’s noticeably taken aback when Astrid points the finger at her own mommie dearest. Lohman bears most of the grunt work here though the entire cast successfully perseveres through the suffocating melodrama. White Oleander is the funniest film since I Am Sam.
White Oldander’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is presented in anamorphic video on this DVD edition of the film. The heavy, almost grotesque use of white in the film must have posed a problem during the transfer because it feels almost as if the entire film has been calibrated using one setting. Outdoor scenes or sequences that rely heavily on the color white tend to fare better than darker-lit scenes or indoor scenarios. Flesh tones seem to fare worst during these darker sequences and blacks appear less than rock solid. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is a delight and the surround channels are surprisingly active for a film so quiet, though that may have something to do with the underpraised Thomas Newman score that plays consistently throughout.
First up is a surprisingly detailed if not dry commentary track by director Peter Kosminsky, producer John Wells and Janet Fitch, writer of the novel from which the film is adapted. Kosminsky’s loyalty to the material is admirable, as is his desire to remain authentic to how children enter and leave the foster care system. A theatrical trailer and two short but relatively mundane and repetitive featurettes ("The Journey of White Oldeander and "The Making of White Oleander") are also included here. Don’t be offended by the shameless self-promotion on the back of the DVD: the "enthralling additional scenes" are just that! There’s no optional director’s commentary but it’s not too difficult to see why these scenes were cut. In one deleted sequence, the evil white trash woman played by Robin Wright Penn flips out and beats her son in front of Astrid and a young black kid. While clutching his arm, the young boy screams, "I think it’s dislocated." Funny stuff, but not quite as funny as a scene where the emotional wreck played by Renée Zellweger forces Alison Lohman to choose a cereal for breakfast. Poor Lohman is forced to reference her character’s uncanny ability to shape-shift when she says, "I’m infinitely adaptable." For those interested, Lohman ultimately picks up a box of Lucky Charms.
Only time will tell if White Oleander deserves a place next to Mommie Dearest but you may want to hold on to this over-the-top melodrama until a final verdict is announced.