"White Oleander" is a film that wants badly for you to laugh and cry with it; it tries so hard to win your love that it ends up like a cheesy soap opera. The biggest problem is Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Ingrid Magnussen, an artist whose work is more her own life than it is her collages. She is the Nietzschian über-mother of adolescent daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman), consumed with love only for herself but determined to keep a stranglehold on Astrid. One day she murders her boyfriend for understandably trying to get away, is sent to prison for many years, and Astrid spends the rest of the film, which covers her adolescence, trying to fend off Ingrid's long-distance intrusions while being shuttled in and out of foster homes. Why is Pfeiffer the problem for the film? Because her face is a mask throughout, her voice an uninflected rant, and her small eyes without makeup (in prison there are evidently no exceptions even for actresses) turn very beady indeed.
But Astrid's journey through these years is the real story of the film, and Lohman handles it with great ease and power. She is not mannered as an actress, and is always believably the child - and ultimately the young woman - thrust into worlds she never knew existed, but which she learns to handle. Her first foster home is with single parent Starr (Robin Wright Penn), former alcoholic stripper now turned Jesus freak. Astrid, who never knew her own father, finds a lover in Starr's boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser), until Starr finds out and shoots her. Remanded to a group home she makes friends with another resident, Paul (Patrick Fugit), who like Astrid is an artist himself. But then it's on to the home of Claire and Mark Richards (Renée Zellweger and Noah Wyle), ex-B-movie starlet and current film director who is always away on location.
What seems like the perfect home is destroyed by Ingrid's long-distance machinations, and Astrid returns again to the group home. The third foster home (in the novel by Janet Fitch there are evidently five) is with a marvelously Dickensian Russian immigrant, Rena (Svetlana Efremova), who uses her foster kids like a contemporary Fagin. Lohman's transformation from blonde version of her mother to Goth princess, pierced and tattooed and sporting matching black hair and lipstick, is an unexpected pleasure in this dark film; she has a beauty beyond her looks that carries us along even when the script and direction let her down.
"White Oleander" -- the title evidently comes from the source of the poison Ms. Pfeiffer uses to kill her guy -- would have been more powerful, more important, more meaningful to us all, if director Peter Kosminsky had trusted his material more. He overcuts his scenes but undershoots the film; that is, he allows for pregnant pauses in almost every scene, but then throws away any possible dramatic payoff by not resolving them, or else letting us hang as though something meaningful had happened. And then he cuts to a whole new sequence. It's the kind of bad directing that comes from not understanding one's material but pretending that one does. He seems not to know what's important and what is not. The film is not a disaster; it's just a failure.