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White Oleander ****
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Astrid:  Alison Lohman
Ingrid:  Michelle Pfeiffer
Ray:  Cole Hauser
Directed by Peter Kosminsky 

"You're not listening to me. I can tell because of your lackluster eye contact."

I get most of my information concerning cast and crews of movies from the Internet Movie Database.  When I searched for White Oleander, I saw the familiar little blurb from users comments.  It read: a Lifetime TV movie.  Im inclined to agree if every Lifetime TV movie contains a well-written script, a tour de force performance from a twenty-something actress, and enough quality to sell a female heavy drama to a twenty-one year old male who still likes to see stuff blow up on screen.  SoI dont agree.  Silly IMDB user got it all wrong.  You can take tired formulas and make them work if you surround it with quality and talent.

White Oleander surprised me greatly in its performances and relative unflinching look at flawed relationships and the merits they still hold in spite of us.  The story follows Astrid (Alison Lohman) from the time she is twelve to the time she is twenty.  Her life stops when her charismatic, maybe sociopathic mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) kills a dismissive boyfriend (Billy Connolly). 

She begins her trek through social services at the foster home of Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a born again ex-drug addict and wild girl.  It appears that her only income rolls in from having the several foster children living with her.  The home also comes with Starrs live-in boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser), a bright spot in Astrids cloudy days.  As the relationship between Ray and Astrid begins to build, the home (figuratively) begins to crumble.

Upon leaving the house and the situation, Astrid is forced to put in time in a facility for youths in the system.  She acts out and begins to change herself to reflect a loss of innocence we can see but she never really does until much later.  She meets Paul (Patrick Fugit), whose early friendly advances are met with resistance and attitude.

There was a book from the 70s or 80s called Pinballs about foster kids, and I never really got the idea the title was trying to convey until watching the unsystematic settling and uprooting of Astrid as she moved from home to facility to home and back again.

All this has been played before, but never with such consideration for realism in characters even as the drama moves into melodrama.  Some of the outcomes are predictable, yes; but I never stopped to care because I was mesmerized first by Lohmans deft portrayal and second by the story that allowed the characters to carry it.

Make no mistake, Lohman is the actress to watch from her generation.  This performance, coupled with her work in the underrated gem Matchstick Me, signals the arrival of a major new talent.  Lohman has the movie set squarely on her shoulders.  If the character doesnt work, the audience doesnt care about anything else that happens in the story.  She won me over with Matchstick Men, but earned a fan for life with her amazing performance as Astrid.

The supporting work is all expertly laid on film, from Wright Penn to the surprising appearance and performance of Renee Zellwegger.  The cream of the crop is actually the devilish delight Michelle Pfeiffer displays in playing a wolf in Hollywood actress clothing.  She layers her deceit and hints at underlying trauma with only a sly smile and emotionless line.  Its a new take on the Femme Fatale, but it plays more dangerous than anything Rebecca Romijn could ever pull off.



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