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White Oleander

White Oleander, based on the novel by Janet Fitch, details the hellish experiences of Astrid Magnussen as she moves from foster home to foster home after the incarceration of her mother. The story is along the same lines as a typical Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but stands out because of the strong work by its cast. In particular, Alison Lohman (The Thirteenth Floor, Alex in Wonder), a relatively new actor, is able to upstage veteran actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, and Renee Zellweger. At its heart, White Oleander is a struggle for dominance between two people, Astrid and her mother Ingrid (Pfeiffer, I Am Sam, What Lies Beneath). Astrid is growing up and searching for an identity. As she moves from place to place, each new experience is helping to shape the person that she is to become. Yet, even from jail, Ingrid still exerts a large amount of influence over Astrid.

Ingrid is jail for the murder of her boyfriend. She poisoned him with the flower from the title and landed in jail, beginning Astrid's journey through hell. She first stays with Starr (Penn, Searching for Debra Winger, The Last Castle), a born again ex-stripper. Astrid is happy, until Starr grows jealous over the relationship between Astrid and Starr's boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser, Hart's War, A Shot at Glory). She ends up in a facility with other children, where she meets Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous). Trout is a kindred spirit; both are artistically minded and do not hang out with the 'in' crowd. She then moves to live with Claire Richards (Zellweger, Bridget Jones's Diary, Me, Myself and Irene) and her husband Mark (Noah Wyle, Enough, Donnie Darko). Claire is looking less for a daughter and more for a best friend, and Astrid finds that she is happy here also. Still, Ingrid manages to have a hold over Astrid, and somehow manages to negatively impact Astrid's life.

Mary Agnes Donoghue's (Deceived, Paradise) adaptation narrows the amount of homes Astrid went to and makes her a little older than she was in the novel. The basic gist of the novel remains intact. It's not that each of Astrid's experiences is too traumatic or depressing for the audience, it's just that it doesn't seem exceptionally much of anything. Aside from Astrid and Ingrid, most of the characters are thinly written. It's a trade-off for director Peter Kosminsky (Innocents, Warriors), whether he should focus in detail on a particular person or take a more superficial approach in order to convey the bigger picture. People like Starr and Claire almost seem like caricatures at times. Lohman is the one who carries the weight of White Oleander, and for a beginner, she does an exceptionally good job.

Haro Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 49 minutes, Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence.

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