Never rising above routine episodic storytelling, “White Oleander” nonetheless retains something of its source novel’s ravaged emotional surface and cool, observant manner. Indeed, fans of Janet Fitch’s bestselling debut tome will be surprised at how much of the book remains in Mary Agnes Donoghue’s script adaptation, as it traces the tumultuous mid-teen years of a girl put in foster homes after her brilliant artist-mom is convicted of murdering her lover. Never reaching a truly devastating or, at least, revelatory catharsis, pic will depend on major critical support and headwinds out of Toronto preem to stay afloat in an extremely competitive B.O. season.
Film is most notable as the U.S. debut of talented Brit helmer and TV vet Peter Kosminsky (“Warriors,” “No Child of Mine”). Along with a constant use of handheld cameras, Kosminsky (with his longtime editor Chris Ridsdale) also aggressively applies ellipses for transitions to an extent rarely seen these days.
Technique immediately comes in handy, since the combination of voiceovers by pic’s teen survivor, Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman), and the propulsive and violent actions of her tough, unforgiving mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) come at the viewer in an effective, pell-mell rush. Before we know it, Ingrid — changed to a multi-media artist from her poet character in the novel — has gone from passing on to Astrid her own brand of Darwinian survivalist-as-lifestyle and her aesthetics (“You can’t be an artist if you don’t see”) to being hauled away by cops for murdering Barry (Billy Connolly in an ultra-minimalist appearance).
By adhering strictly to Astrid’s p.o.v. throughout, pic captures the immediacy of, first, Ingrid’s arrest and 35-years-to-life conviction, followed by the girl’s thrust into the wild uncertainties of fosterdom. Astrid’s bounces from one family to another essentially form separate chapters in the narrative.
Astrid is first deposited in the Tujunga trailer-trash environs of born-again Christian mom Starr (Robin Wright Penn, having a ball playing a larger-than-life cliche), whose religious fervor is as loud as her skin-tight clothes. Home is divided between female coarseness — from Starr and her daughter — and male sensitivity — a star-gazing foster kid and Starr’s beau Ray (Cole Hauser).
Next stop is pic’s saddest, most affecting passage, at Malibu digs of barely-working thesp Claire (Renee Zellweger), whose countless lonely nights while hubby Mark (Noah Wyle) is away on business make her cling on to Astrid like a life-preserver. In Zellweger’s richest, most haunting perf to date, Claire becomes just the kind of unexpected but tragic figure that adds real resonance to Astrid’s larger journey, momentarily pushing pic to the levels of Kieslowski’s moral cinema.
Mom number three, Russian emigre Rena (Svetlana Efremova), registers the least, since the full dimensions of Astrid’s life with Rena’s band of girls as they gather people’s throwaways to re-sell at swap meets are only glimpsed at.
A key thread is Astrid’s visits to Ingrid in prison. Ingrid becomes with time even harder and more ruthless. In a striking and welcome shift from several recent turns, Pfeiffer comes on like a ferociously protective mother bear. Even though a final confession to Astrid of past sins seems to be a show of weakness for Ingrid, Pfeiffer keeps up the woman’s stiff defenses in a daring, unsympathetic perf.
The other thread, and the one that predictably rescues Astrid from degradation and worse, is young comic book artist Paul (Patrick Fugit, growing up since “Almost Famous”), also a foster kid at the county facility holding them over between homes. Warily, Astrid develops a bond that becomes a relationship, but like the simplified v.o. narration, it is much too prosaic and flat to feel like more than a conventional route to a happy ending.
Astrid is a tremendously weighty and extended role for a thesp with no prior feature experience, but Lohman takes it on with great confidence. If acting is reacting, then this is Lohman’s work from top to bottom, playing off a vast array of types and situations with an Astrid-like sense of fortitude. In a pic where women hold center-stage, Fugit and Hauser leave behind some good, male vibrations.
Kosminsky shows real command of his tech resources, and has an eye for details of L.A. that perhaps only an outsider can bring. Lenser Elliot Davis supports this eye with crisp images, while Susie De Santo wittily exploits Astrid’s unconscious tendency to dress according to the taste of her current foster mom and/or surroundings. Composer Thomas Newman continues to impress with a subtle piano-based score.