White Oleander [DVD] 
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White Oleander tells an unforgettable story of the relationship between a mother, Ingrid and her daughter, Astrid. When Ingrid is jailed for a crime of passion, Astrid is shunted through a series of Los Angeles foster homes each its own universe with its own laws, dangers and hard lessons to be learned. Whilst Ingrid tries to give Astrid the power to survive, Astrid tries to show her mother how to love her in what becomes a redeeming journey of self-discovery. Based on the acclaimed best-selling novel by Janet Fitch, White Oleander stars an impressive cast including Michelle Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath), Renee Zellweger (Chicago), Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men) and Robin Wright Penn (The Pledge).
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The situation is that an adolescent, when her mother goes to prison, must go into the foster care system. What she experiences, as is the stuff of narratives, is truly horrible. Any time that she builds a relationship, it is destroyed or revealed as worthless. Throughout all of this, she begins to see her birth mother for what she is, and seeks to go her own way.
But her mother, even from prison, can control events by the relationships she can create. All over again, it is like a recapitulation of the daughter's entire life, which spurs her to seek the truth even at the cost of traducing her inner self. They have a terrible fight, played almost entirely off stage but understood in moments of simple dialogue, that is the fight for the girl's life itself.
Alison Lohman, as the daughter, is simply extraordinary. There is not a moment that rings false or hollywood-chinsey, but her pain and struggle is achingly real. Of course, the character has some talent, as an artist like her mother, but also in her ability to form relationships. She has seen so much pain and self-destruction, that she learns she must fend for herself. I do not think I have ever seen a film that succeeds so completely as a coming of age drama of finding a path through the pain. She becomes tough, but she does not lose the perceptive sensitive core that might show her a way to become a healthy, loving adult. It is amazing to watch and there is not a jot of sentimentality, only realistic tragedy and growth for what it is worth.
Warmly recommended. This is a moving journey that says so much about what youth must survive through our pathetically damaged social system and deficient public policy. Lohman is amazing and so are the other stars. This a both great drama and social commentary.
The film is a good adaptation of the book, though a lot of the grimmer parts (such as the underage sex and the harshness of being a foster child) have been toned down or cut out altogether. Alison Lohman is a wonderful Astrid: her wide eyes perfectly portray Astrid's vulnerability and hurt at what happens to her. She also morphs very well as Astrid takes on the role each mother assigns her: faithful accolyte, demure virgin, intelligent artist, street-wise market girl. Meanwhile, Michelle Pfeiffer has never been more chilling as Ingrid: the film makes good use of her icy beauty and sharp cheekbones to reveal Ingrid's self-absorption and cruelty. Robin Wright Penn is almost unrecognisable as the trailer trash Starr (in a good way) while Renee Zellweger is perfect for the sweet but ultimately vapid Claire (though she is very different from the Claire in the book, who looks more like Audrey Hepburn and thinks too much). Patrick Fugit makes the most of his small role as the only boy of her age that Astrid actually likes.
Buy if: you want a chick flick with a sharp edge.
I was a big fan of the novel, but this film is a luke-warm version of it. The script sounded like a first draft, a summary, a roll-call of characters; it lacked any emotional depth or character development. The direction was simplistic. Apparently someone thought they had a great idea: Take some beautiful, famous actresses and put them together and make a feminist statement! In fact, the actresses are wasted in small, undeveloped parts, with the exception of Lohman, who carries the film. The three adult parts lack grit and fire; The character of Astrid's mother needed to be an absolute psychotic filled with hatred. Likewise, the utter selfishness and cruelty of the "foster mothers" that made the novel so unforgettable are just not here. The dvd extras are unremarkable, except to show many of the best scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
I cannot recommend this film, but those interested in a real look at the damage that can be done in the foster care system should read "White Oleander" by Janet Fitch.
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