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Astrid (Alison Lohman) is just 15 when her beautiful but uncompromising artist mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), shoots her boyfriend (Billy Connolly) and is arrested. Left in the care of various foster mothers (Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger) Astrid comes face to face with their own problems and struggles to survive - adrift yet monitored & controlled by her mother even from prison. She slowly unravels her individuality, confronting her mother in a bid to be free. And only then do they find a true bond.

Review by Louise Keller:
Superb performances from an outstanding cast draw us to White Oleander, although emotional honesty is traded for synthetic veneer. And while Michelle Pfeiffer is not the film’s star, her persona and presence haunt us throughout the screen adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel. It’s a coming of age story about a young girl trying to separate herself from that of her obsessive mother, and Pfeiffer masterfully brings a touch of vulnerability to the selfish, possessive, neurotic and claustrophobic Ingrid. A cross between the chick flick Anywhere But Here, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and a twist on the father/son Life As A House theme, the mainstay of the film lies in the strong cast of women whose stylised images form the bleached beauties of the keyart.

Adapted for the screen by Mary Agnes Donoghue, who penned the screenplay for Beaches, while we connect to our protagonist Astrid in her search and struggle to escape the emotional clutches of her mother, we never experience the kind of emotional connection that the journey should bring. This is melodrama twisted by the hands of a manipulating Hollywood machine and we are always felt conscious of the filmmaker’s intentions rather than his achievements. Melodrama seems to gnaw its way through scenes that should simply flow and break our hearts.

I love Robin Wright Penn’s gaudy, self-doubting Starr and we warm to Renee Zellweger’s anxious Claire who only needs a puff of wind to knock her over. The credentials are good – from the cinematography to Thomas Newman’s lovely score, but despite this outstanding cast, White Oleander is a less than satisfying emotional experience, and leaves us wanting. The title may be reminiscent of Lantana (a troublesome weed), but Oleander (a poisonous evergreen shrub with beautiful flowers) lacks the power and heart of the former.

All eyes are on newcomer Alison Lohman, whose Astrid exudes despair and uncertainty. In the cast interviews on the DVD, Lohman (with her hair short and spiky, unlike the long blond locks in the film) tells how she fell in love with the book and the musical writing; getting the part was like a dream come true. She learned much from her co-stars by observing them. Pfeiffer became ‘very fond’ of Lohman during production and talks enthusiastically about the book, the story and how she admires the trait of not willing to compromise. It’s an ‘extreme version of a universal story’ she says.

Other special features include a fascinating commentary between filmmaker, author and producer, plus a 12 minute making-of featurette, which takes us onto the set allowing us to see the actors at work in several key scenes.

Published December 11, 2003

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CAST: Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, Billy Connolly, Svetlana Efremova, Patrick Fugit, Cole Hauser, Noah Wyle

DIRECTOR: Peter Kosminsky

SCRIPT: Mary Agnes Donoghue

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by director Peter Kosinsky, producer John Wells and Janet Finch (author of novel); interviews with cast/crew; behind the scenes and trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: December 10, 2003

DVD RELEASE: Magna Pacific

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