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Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003

Girls just wanna have Supermoms

White Oleander

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Peter Kosminsky
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Here's a strange thing: When I was 15, all the girls I knew wished that their mothers were different, but the boys never thought of such a thing. Some girls fantasized about having glamorous mothers, who were never seen to answer the door wiping wet hands on aprons. Others pined for stay-at-home moms who wore floral dresses and baked walnut cookies. Either way, we all felt guilty about these fantasies. But equally, we all inwardly vowed never to turn into our mothers.

News photo
Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman in "White Oleander"

While boys dunked basketballs through garage-door hoops, girls grappled with the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. Ah, the mother-daughter thing. Or let me rephrase that: the mother-daughter thing when the daughter is 15 and the mother is fortysomething, which is what "White Oleander" is all about. Puberty and mid-life crisis clashing together like cymbals of different sizes, then desperately trying to find each other, to connect and communicate. Yikes. What a maze of complications and twisted emotions and resentment and . . . love.

Perhaps when he was a child, director Peter Kosminsky listened in on girls' discussions about their mothers because he seems to know a lot about the subject. True, he had plenty of pointers. "White Oleander" is based on a bestseller by Janet Fitch, which is one of the most popular coming-of-age stories of the past few years.

A tale about a girl's struggle for independence from her charismatic mother, "White Oleander" underscores the enormous effect a woman can have on her daughter, some of it good and some of it irreparable.

For Astrid (Alison Lohman), her artist mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), is a goddess incarnate. Beautiful and talented, Ingrid lives outside conventions and worldly concerns. She doesn't fuss, scold or cook. She doesn't attend school functions. She tells her daughter that the first rule of going out with men is to "never let him stay the night." But when Astrid turns 15, Ingrid's new suitor, Barry (Billy Connolly), sweeps Ingrid off her feet, stays over a lot, then betrays her. Enraged, Ingrid poisons him. When the police come to arrest her, Ingrid assures her daughter that she'll "be back in an hour." She's sentenced to life imprisonment.

What ensues is a series of foster homes and different moms. Astrid does her best to please them all -- she needs a strong mother figure to worship, the kind of person Ingrid has been for her throughout her life.

Mom No. 1 is Starr (Robin Wright Penn), a reformed stripper and born-again Christian who has embraced Jesus as her "personal savior" and pushes Astrid to do the same. But as soon as she sees that her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Cole Hauser), and Astrid show signs of mutual attraction, Starr puts an abrupt halt to their cozy home life by getting drunk and firing a gun at her.

Mom No. 2 is Claire (Renee Zellweger), a TV actress married to a wealthy but absentee husband (Noah Wyle). Sweet and needy Claire is looking more for a companion to ease her loneliness than a daughter to care for, and Astrid is happy to comply until the revelation of her husband's infidelity drives Claire to suicide.

Too heartbroken to invest any more emotions in mothers, Astrid stops looking for motherly love and starts honing her survival skills. To this end, she hooks up with Mom No. 3: the hard-as-nails Rena (Svetlana Efremova), who runs secondhand clothing stalls on the labor of her foster daughters and coaches Astrid on the importance of making a buck, no matter what.

In between foster homes, Astrid bides her time in a government institution for teenagers with absent parents. Here, she meets Paul (Patrick Fugit) who urges her to forget about Ingrid and move on with her life.

Astrid can't let go, even as she becomes increasingly doubtful of Ingrid's professions of undying love for her. She has seen too clearly that her mother wants to control her life, even from behind prison bars, and is disturbed by Ingrid's cool, offhand remarks such as: "Prison life suits me. There's no hypocrisy. It's kill or be killed."

Not only does Ingrid possess the mental strength to tough it out in jail, she also looks gorgeous in prison garb, her perfectly streaked blonde tresses making her look like she's just walked out of a shampoo commercial. Poor Astrid has to deal with this Dream/Monster Mom and the ending hints that she will never fully recover from the effect that Ingrid has had upon her.

Lohman gives a powerhouse performance as Astrid, caught up in an inner battle to free herself of her mother's domination, while still loving her deeply.

Kosminsky uses an interesting device to chart Astrid's struggle: the way she does her hair. At first, in imitation of her mom, Astrid's hair is long and loose. Then her first brutal foster-home experience inspires her to chop it all off with a knife. When she's with the fastidious Claire, it's shaped into a fashionable bob. In the home of brassy Rena, Astrid dyes it black, accentuated by Goth makeup. If none of this makes sense, you were probably too busy with basketball and not paying enough attention to girls' discussions -- they obsess as much about hair as about their moms.

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