Review: White Oleander

White Oleander is the funniest film since I Am Sam.

White Oleander
Photo: Warner Bros.

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.

Score: 
 Cast: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renée Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn, Taryn Manning, Patrick Fugit, Noah Wyle  Director: Peter Kosminsky  Screenwriter: Mary Agnes Donoghue  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 109 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2002  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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