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IN SHORT: Unbearable. [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence. 110 minutes]
Director Peter Kosminsky's last film, called No Child Of Mine, was controversial in his native Britain due to its based on a true story of a sexually abused girl turned prostitute at age 11. For his American film debut, Kosminsky aims the abuse full force at his audience and gets a fine cast to deliver magnificently "real" performances in a story that will bore you out of your minds. We couldn't stand it. Our femme friend next to us was shifting in her seat. The guy with the cell phone behind us didn't bother to shut the damned thing off and, even after the third time it went off during the screening, no one yelled at him to do so.
Welcome to Oscar wannabe season, folks. This is the time in which actors choose the most unpleasant roles possible to perform, for only in delivering believable performances in characters that are miserable or pathetic or behave in distasteful or repulsive ways can they gain notice of that small group of professionals who award statues in the Spring.
The story of White Oleander, and we've had to spend way too much time analyzing this mess to clarify it for you, would best be summed up by digging into your CD collection for (or surfing the net for an illegal MP3 of ) Sting singing "If You Love Someone, Set Them Free." Do so and you'll save yourself some cash. Despite the big time grownup star names above the title, this is the story of young Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman). Astrid has natural artistic talent. She never knew her father and has been raised by a fiercely independent and emotionally controlling mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer, click for StarTalk). Ingrid's boyfriend/ lover/ sometimes live-in partner is a writer named Barry (Billy Connolly), whom Ingrid sets free before the actor speaks even a line of dialog. Of course, murder will get you 35 to Life in California, so Astrid is set free in the wonderful world of foster care.
Buried in the dialog somewhere down the line is the accusation that Barry was physically and sexually abusive to the pair. In flashback we see an angry Barry punch through a window after Ingrid has wiped his computer hard drive clean and destroyed his work hours before deadline. That makes Ingrid a vindictive bitch and we see nothing more of Barry to substantiate the spoken accusations. Then again, who needs character development when you can make fun of a stereotypical born again Christian?
That's Starr Thomas (Robin Wright Penn) who's partial to wearing backless micro-mini skirts to Bible Study class and is living in sin with married boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser). Starr has a couple of other foster kids in addition to her natural born Carolee (Liz Stauber), white trash in the making. When Starr imagines that something is going on between Ray and the under-aged Astrid (maybe, maybe not...) something terrible happens.
After time in a juvenile hall, where she gets beat on, learns to threaten murder and is found attractive by a boy who never gets the chance to introduce himself (an hour later we'll learn he's Paul Trout, played by Patrick Fugit). The boy is also into drawing and, as their paths cross they will, eventually, share a sketchbook. Astrid continues to visit mom when she can. There are letters, as well, but Pfeiffer's role is minimal and never expands beyond a "You're a Viking. You don't need anyone" kind of control. On to the next foster home, belonging to Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger) and husband Mark (Noah Wyle). Mark makes films, so he's constantly on the road. Claire, an out of work actor, suspects that hubby has a ho in every port, so to speak. She hopes Astrid will provide the Krazy Glue to hold the failing marriage together, but no. Something awful happens and it's back to the juvie hall.
After refusing to see her mother for a good year, and one more foster family under her belt -- Rena's (Svetlana Efremova) a trip. A Russian who dresses her girls like whores and steals clothes out of the garbage to sell at flea markets -- a lawyer shows up seeking to prep testimony for mom's murder trial. Mind you, it's three years after the killing and Astrid has no doubt that mom wants her to lie on the witness stand -- that Barry was a brutal beater of women and children, forced mom to smuggle drugs in from Mexico (that was mom's idea, but what the hey) and so forth. When she reappears in the prison meeting area, thanks to a quick chop chop of the edit blade, Astrid has dyed her blonde hair brown/black (it varies depending on the shot), gotten tattooed and, in short, gone goth. Unless mom answers some real tough questions, no lies on the stand and no dice.
Now, we were supposed to see how Astrid has hardened and reacted to her various situations. We were supposed to see how she's become independent of her mother's control. We were supposed to see how Ingrid comes to accept the fact that Astrid has grown out of her control. But we don't. Blame the actress. Blame the director. Blame a script which is relentless in its awfulness. Take your pick. We looked over at our femme friend and she at us and our mutual telepathy kicked in, "we don't frikkin care". And, gosh, don't you just know it, when all is said and done you've suffered through 110 minutes of unbearable life and a symbolic happy ending in which Astrid demonstrates symbolic conceptual artistic talent -- creating dioramas of her life in decorated suitcases -- that comes out of nowhere.
Oh, white oleanders are flowers. In this film they're placed in glasses filled with milk. If there's a point, it's buried in the book and not exploited in the film.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to White Oleander, he would have paid . . .
You're better off spending your ten spot on a little blue Halcion pill (which plays a small part in the film, too) to put you to sleep through the pain this flick will impose.
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