WHITE OLEANDER blossomed in 2002 with stellar performances from a quartet of actresses, yet was mostly neglected at the box office, withering on the vine at 119th place in the year’s crop. A fine adaptation of the remarkable 1999 novel by Susan Fitch, it stands in good company with a clutch of notable woman-centric projects 2002 offered, including Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Unfaithful, The Hours, Frida and The Good Girl. 109 minutes of screen time can only hint at the complexity and characterizations of the dazzling 446-page book, but the results are nonetheless fierce and enthralling.
“Take my advice and stay away from broken people.”
Artist and single mother ‘Ingrid Magnussen’ (Michelle Pfeiffer) goes from self-possessed to sociopathic, murders a cheating boyfriend and is sent to prison. Her teenaged daughter ‘Astrid’ (Alison Lohman) endures a series of foster mothers, including born-again ex-stripper ‘Starr Thomas’ (Robin Wright) and failed actress ‘Claire Richards’ (Renée Zellweger); Astrid’s varying levels of dismay or comfort with the likewise needy substitute parents further complicated by Ingrid’s insistence, even though incarcerated, of dominance and control.
Taken by the novel, which achieved bestseller status after being promoted by Oprah Winfrey, producers Hunt Lowry (The Last Of The Mohicans) and John Wells (China Beach, ER) enlisted Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches, Deceived, Veronica Guerin) to write the screenplay with Susan Fitch’s enthusiastic approval (unusual for an author giving their self-created child over to the foster care of the movies), then gambled on an offbeat choice as director, Britain’s Peter Kosminsky, who’d primarily done films for BBC TV (one feature, the poorly-received 1992 version of Wuthering Heights).
“Love humiliates you. Hatred cradles you.”
An oleander is a lovely flower thats mode of self-protection is in making itself poisonous, and Pfeiffer’s stunningly realized human form version, as the NY Times critic put it “makes her Olympian seductress at once irresistible and diabolical.” Zellweger’s badly wounded Claire is the flip side of ice-princess Ingrid; she scored another coup that year in Chicago (very good in a wildly overpraised film), while Penn’s unstable sex-bomb (but good with God!) is a portrait in fragile self-delusion. In nearly every scene, 22-year-old Alison Lohman is the softly luminous spirit that holds it all together, beautifully charting Astrid’s battle for self in a sea of emotional storms and more than holding her own against an array of formidable actresses. The men in the story take a decided backseat (in both characters and casting), though Cole Hauser does well as the most guy decent in the lot, getting a welcome chance to display a much kinder side than his usual hard case roles.
As much as the flawed females and mendacious men, the checkerboard terra firma of greater Los Angeles is another challenge Astrid must navigate: 58 locations included Echo Park, Pasadena, Hollywood, Manhattan Beach, Castaic, Silverlake, Malibu, Tujunga, Santa Monica, Monterey Park and Sunland.
Budgeted at $16,000,000, it took in only $21,000,000. Thomas Newman contributes another sensitive score. With Patrick Fugit, Noah Wyle, Kali Rocha, Billy Connolly, Svetlana Efremova (foster mama #3, the base-practical, basically avaricious ‘Rena Gruschenka’), Marc Donato, Debra Christofferson, Amy Aquino and Melissa McCarthy.
* “You should have been sterilized.” Todd & Crystal Public—while patrons flocked to 2002 brain-cell killers Men In Black II, Blade II and Mr. Deeds, they passed up Dirty Pretty Things, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Magdalene Sisters, Laurel Canyon, Sunshine State, Auto Focus, Max and City Of Ghosts.