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White Oleander (Peter Kosminsky) 2002


    Since it’s source novel was picked for Oprah’s book club, the melodramatic machinations of Peter Kosminsky’s well-intentioned chick flick White Oleander don’t exactly come as surprise or a disappointment, but it ultimately fails to live up to promise of its all-star cast. This is resolutely a character study, and its inability to better exploit its series of fine actresses’ talents hurts more as a result. Instead of completely satisfying, fully rounded performances, we get characters that shine only in a few individual scenes, and the emotional arc of the film suffers as a result. The script might be more to blame here than the actors though. Things start off badly as the voiceover narration intones obviously-scripted metaphysical observations such as, “Maybe the wind was the reason my mom did what she did.” Most of the dialogue throughout suffers from similar pratfalls, and very few moments in the film feel the least bit improvisational. Only the soft-spoken Renee Zellweger, who has a tendency to crinkle her nose and pause a bit before talking, manages to consistently convince the audience that her character, and not screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue, is thinking up her lines. Otherwise, the laboriously scripted dialogue feels phony and contrived in its artfulness, even though it’s supposed to be spoken by prison inmates, punk teens, and white trash. People who desire gloss over grittiness certainly won’t mind, but for those expecting a coherently realized world, the discordance will be tough to resolve.


    Still, whatever the flaws of White Oleander, each of the lead actors has at least one scene that justifies her presence. The most unexpected of these was a powerful scene in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s jailbird mom attacked organized religion (in a Hollywood film!) in order to encourage her to think for herself. It is perhaps the only time that the film’s Oprah’s book club-endorsed message really stirs you though. Mostly, we just see a series of relatively disconnected pseudo-edgy encounters with the people that enter the teen protagonist’s life once she’s placed into the foster care system. None of these stories linger long enough to bore you, but all of them would have gained more cumulative impact if at least one of them didn’t end in an explosively physical climax. For all of the astute articulation of complex feelings that fill the generally intelligent lulls in White Oleander’s action, none of its episodes are allowed to resolve with a simple conversation. It’s that it always needs to unnecessarily push things toward the histrionic that disappoints the most.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman