The symbolic weight of Peter Kosminsky’s new film, “White Oleander,” is all in the hair. Everyone starts out blonde, thus leading us to ask the important question (and tagline of the film): “Where does a mother end and a daughter begin?” Well, the daughter “begins” when she chops off her long yellow locks, which is really only a preface to the true climax, in which she dies her hair a trashy shade of brown. So, now we get it. Blonde is symbolic for denial. Brown, or “brunette,” is the film’s metaphor for freedom, survival and all-around just being the best foster kid you can be. All of this would have been better left in an after-school special, from which much of the script seems to have been borrowed anyway.
It’s a sad thing when a halfway-decent book gets turned into a movie, because the movie is never better than the book (the exception here being “The Godfather”), which calls into question why anyone ever liked the book in the first place. This is what will happen to anyone who has read Janet Fitch’s novel “White Oleander” and then sees the film. The film version actually succeeds in articulating one of the novel’s worst flaws: its bloated sense of its own importance. The book drew its strength from the lyrical roll of the plot as it stumbled through the lives of so many fascinating characters. Fitch’s language, however, attempted to slow down what deserved to be a faster-paced piece. It took itself a bit too seriously and yet this is the aspect of the novel that Kosminsky uses as his aesthetic template, throwing off the plot and instead trying to re-create Fitch’s tediousness with ridiculous camera techniques too pompous for a film like this one. His bumpiness recalls “The Blair Witch Project,” and you might be wishing that you were seeing that instead.
The title of the film refers to the murder weapon that gets Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) sent to prison. Ingrid, an egomaniacal artist/single mother, has raised her teenage daughter Astrid to “think for herself,” which Astrid spends the rest of the film attempting to do, eventually coming to the clever conclusion that her mother is a hypocrite. All along, Ingrid just wanted Astrid to be like her. With her mother in prison, Astrid is shoveled from one foster home to the next, with a few stops at a temporary holding cell for foster kids in between.
Astrid’s first foster mother is Star (Robin Wright Penn), a piece of trailer trash who takes in foster children because Jesus would want it that way. When Astrid’s sexuality destroys the Jack Daniel’s-soaked equilibrium of the household, she is sent to an orphanage for older children, where she finds a friend in fellow artistic soul Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit, “Almost Famous”). The two of them make beautiful art together until Astrid is relocated to the home of Mark and Claire Richards (Noah Wyle, Renee Zellweger). Claire, a mentally unstable actress who buys Astrid Marc Jacobs dresses and makes paella for dinner, seems like the dream mother Astrid never had, until Ingrid manages to break up the happy little family, partly out of honesty, but partly due to plain old malice. This is the point of no return for Astrid, who now has brown hair and a goth ‘tude to match, until one day, when the mother and daughter duo must come face-to-face in court. Will Ingrid be able to “let go” of her daughter? By this point, we practically don’t care any more.
The screenplay, written by Mary Agnes Donoghue, miraculously finds ways to sap the energy from Fitch’s novel. Donoghue thinks it is suspenseful to withhold crucial information from us – namely, the details of the murder that lands Ingrid in prison – which turns the movie into a manipulative did-she-or-didn’t-she narrative that is nowhere to be found in the book. Frankly, the real mystery that had my friends and I perplexes during the movie was why, halfway through the film, the still-blonde Lohman’s eyebrows suddenly turned black, and then back to blonde, and then black again.
The actors are silly as well. Pfeiffer confuses Ingrid with Lady Macbeth, reciting all of her lines with a regality of speech usually reserved for members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Wright Penn is far too pretty to be playing white trash, and Lohman just opens her brown eyes really wide and calls it a day. Of all the women, only Zellweger breathes any life into the film. In her crinkly smile and skittish movements, we see flashes of pain.
Or maybe we just feel pain, because we are in the fourth row at this movie, the main character suddenly has black eyebrows, and, hey, there are still 45 minutes left to go.