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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/7/03

White Oleander
Widescreen - 2002 (2003) - Warner Brothers/Pandora (Warner)

review by Graham Greenlee of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

White Oleander (Widescreen) Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/B-

Specs and Features
109 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, Snapper case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered disc (layer switch at ??), audio commentary (with director Peter Kosminsky, producer John Wells, and novelist Janet Fitch), 6 deleted scenes, The Making of White Oleander featurette (12 mins), The Journey of White Oleander featurette (13 mins), theatrical trailer, filmographies, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English & French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"My mother was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was also the most dangerous."

Some movie critics coined 2002 "The Year of Women," a year where there were strong roles for women over a certain age (35). Films such as Far from Heaven, The Hours, Personal Velocity, and Lovely & Amazing are included among female-centric films that offered fully-rounded, three-dimensional parts for women. But one of those films seemed to fall through the cracks in terms of critical and audience support: White Oleander.

White Oleander stars virtual newcomer Alison Lohman as Astrid Magnussen, a teenage girl living with her artistic single mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Los Angeles. Ingrid is an amazing talent, but is eccentric, cold... in other words, definitely not motherly material. A sudden act rips mother away from daughter and throws them both into public systems where survival is not easy. For mother Ingrid, it's a state penitentiary. For Astrid, it's foster care.

Astrid finds a home with a foster mother in the Santa Clarita Valley. This foster mother, Starr (Robin Wright Penn), is trailer trash who preaches the bible to her four foster wards despite sleeping with the preacher behind the back of a boyfriend ten years her junior (Cole Hauser). The frightened Astrid finds some comfort in this new, simple life, and quickly befriends Starr's boyfriend. But Ingrid has been writing to Starr, and those writings spur Starr's jealousy towards Astrid.

After another sudden turn of events, Astrid is thrown into a state-run orphanage/boarding school where she befriends another teenager (Patrick Fugit) who has taken an interest in her and her art. One day, Astrid is surprisingly placed into the custody of Claire (Renee Zellweger) a struggling actress who finally shows her what love truly is. Can the cold, deceiving Ingrid still keep a hold on her daughter's life from prison and destroy the only true happiness that Astrid has known in the process?

White Oleander is definitely not light material, but wisely, director Peter Kosminsky and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue don't play up the melodramatic elements. Instead, the film slowly reveals each turn, making Astrid's extraordinary journey into something heart wrenching and believable. Having read the original novel, I can say that Donoghue's adaptation cuts some extraneous elements and modifies characters and situations to make the film more palatable to a larger audience, but it certainly doesn't water down the original novel. This isn't your standard Lifetime movie of the week fare, and producers Hunt Lowry and John Wells (of E.R. and The West Wing fame) elevate the material into a hypnotizing experience.

Admittedly, Kosminsky's use of hand-held camera is a little distracting. It's not as over-used as the technique was in, say, I Am Sam, but it doesn't go without notice. Thankfully, Thomas Newman's score and the amazing performances by the four featured actress are ultimately engrossing enough to forget any stylistic detractors during viewing.

Alison Lohman is stunning as Astrid, a hard part for anyone to play, as the character goes through so many transformations and must age from twelve to nineteen-years during the course of the film. The twenty-three year old covers these changes flawlessly. Michelle Pfeiffer was definitely worthy of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, for her best performance since The Fabulous Baker Boys. Each meeting that Astrid and Ingrid have during the course of the film are absolute highlights. Chameleon Robin Wright Penn and star Renee Zellweger, in what could be her last supporting performance for a while, offer unique portraits of women that could have been easily been caricatures in the hands of other actresses.

Warner Home Video has released this drama in the same good-quality fashion as they have their other day-and-date releases. The anamorphic widescreen video quality is spot on. The colors look a little washed out, and grayed, but this was a stylistic choice intended by the director. So while it doesn't make for a good demo disc, it is accurately presented. The blacks are solid, and shadow detailing remains impressive. The video does contain a bit too much edge enhancement, but nothing too distracting. Note that there is also a separate full-screen edition available. Be sure to check the packaging and grab the right one.

The provided Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is quite vibrant for a quiet drama, and surrounds are in constant use for the score and for ambiance. The prison scenes make good use of the surrounds to hear other prisoners talking in the background, while in outdoor scenes you can hear the Santa Ana winds blowing behind you. It's nothing distracting, just a nice touch. Dialogue and the various other elements come across with great clarity, with good dynamic range.

Director Peter Kosminsky, producer John Wells, and the book's author, Janet Fitch, provide the scene-specific audio commentary. Kosminsky dominates the track, both hosting the discussion and providing many insights of his own. Fitch talks about how different the book is from the film, and the time that she spent with the screenwriter adapting her work, bringing it an added clarity. Wells discusses what attracted him to the book and various casting and production issues.

Electronic Press Kit material makes up the two included featurettes The Making of White Oleander and The Journey of White Oleander. Making is your more general interviews/plot synopsis/film pitch-type of featurette, while Journey talks more about the novel and the casting process. There is some valuable behind-the-scenes information here, but the production of the clips seems slight and generic. Also included are about six short deleted scenes that add some character depth but weren't integral. The last briefly adds to Noah Wyle's thankless role. The commentary mentioned a twenty-minute prologue to the film, which is where Connelly's work was featured. It's too bad that the prologue wasn't included. The theatrical trailer and cast and crew filmographies are also available.

Don't let the low box office and bland cover art deceive you. White Oleander is sharply written; an effective study of how mothers affect their daughters and how the foster care system has collapsed. With a beautiful performance by Alison Lohman, and a nicely produced disc by Warner Brothers, White Oleander is definitely recommended.

Graham Greenlee
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