White Oleander
*** GM
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, Renee Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn, Cole Hauser, Patrick Fugit, Noah Wyle


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Eek, Michelle Pfeiffer is scary-looking these days. I'm not sure if she's going under the knife a lot, or if he's naturally hawk-faced and shrewish, or if it was exagerrated for this character, but she's supposed to be 'the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen' and she looks like a demonic bird of prey. I half-expected her to swoop down and eat up a mouse in the forest at some point.

It actually serves her well in this role, though. She plays a self-obsessed woman who gets so pissed that Billy Connolly cheats on her that she fucks with him, poisons him and then goes to prison, which forces her daughter Astrid (Lohman) to drift through foster home hell in her mid-teens. First it's nutjob born-again Christian ex-stripper (Penn) and then it's emotionally rattled sweetheart pseudo-actress (Zellweger), and finally it's a flea market cabal, and in between it's basically juvie for her. Through all of this, she struggles to pin down her relationship with her mother and what the hell she's supposed to believe about life, love and independence.

Yes, you read that right. The replacement Howard Hesseman from "Head of the Class" is nailing Michelle Pfeiffer, then he cheats on her, and she's so pissed she kills him.

Actually, I like Billy Connolly - he's insane and hilarious. He's also got perhaps a total of five words in the film, and at least half of them are 'bitch.' That's amusing to me.

But this ain't a comedy. This is a touching drama about troubled teenagerdom and a girl being forced to figure out how to separate a mother's bullshit from actual wisdom far earlier than she should. Overall, it works. Despite some pretentious and iffy opening narration and some awkward moments, Lohman's performance manages to bring the tension and quiet angst to the story, and you really get a sense of how it must feel to be wanted only for self-serving or hypocritical reasons by substitute families, and finding your only real connection with someone in the same predicament. The fact that the guy she hooks up with, Patrick Fugit, is a comic booky artist and is exactly (I mean fuckin' EXACTLY) like a friend of mine makes it that much cooler to me, which may influence my judgment, since I am what is colloquially referred to as a "nerd."

Pfeiffer is also notable as the "beautiful flower hiding a poisonous center" - hence the title of the film - as she feels appropriately detached and surly about her lot in life and her backhanded love for her daughter effectively shows how it can twist a young girl's mind around on itself. She starts to lose it, though, when she starts making speeches about how "hatred cradles you." Far too over the top and just absurd. She's also got a lot of veiny temple moments that make me wonder if she's had her skin stretched a few too many times in a few too many ways, or if that was something added in makeup or if it was something peculiar about the way she's aging.

Penn's Starr, the holier-than-thou trailer trash foster mom that thinks Astrid is trying to nail her boyfriend, seems a bit overdone, but Zellweger's Claire has a broken sweetness about her that sinks into pathetic desperation, and it works more often than it doesn't. I could have used more on her, but the foster moms just serve the story of the central relationship, so they're not nearly as important, which is to the film's detriment. However, one cool thing about Zellweger's 'bad actress' character is that they can actually show clips from her real-life role in the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake as an example of her shitty career. That's cute. It's also fun to see important stuff happen in a comic book store that I've actually been to.

It's a decent, interesting film, helped by Lohman's quiet, vulnerable performance and Pfeiffer's curious ability to come across as a hardass even though she could break apart with a stiff wind. It's got some pretentious eye-rolling moments and it didn't entirely grab me, but there's stuff here to like.

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