White Oleander
No flowery depiction of Pfeiffer
By Rachel Deahl

“Do I have something in my hair?”

What I knew about White Oleander in advance of seeing it was that it was based on the popular Oprah Book Club novel of the same name and that it was about the complex relationship between a young girl and her domineering mother, controlling her from the confines of prison. And, essentially, that's what the movie is: the tale of a mother and daughter traversing the difficult territory of growing up and growing apart with the unusual hitch being that mom is behind bars for murder during the process.

Thankfully, White Oleander doesn't play out as a catalogue of female abuse and degradation-a trait so many of the talk show host's beloved books had in common. No doubt Janet Fitch's novel had the potential to become such a film, as it follows the hardships of a girl who endures repeated foster homes and juvenile hall. Luckily, the film concerns itself with the fascinating relationship between its two leading ladies-the mother who won't let go and the daughter desperately longing to be set free.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as the celebrated artist, and fiercely independent, Ingrid Magnussen. After killing her abusive boyfriend, Ingrid is sent to the big house for a life sentence, setting her beautiful and talented daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman) adrift in the world of foster care and broken homes.

Taking residence in a collection of dysfunctional homes throughout the California, Astrid encounters a born-again Christian with a penchant for spandex and jealous rage named Star (Robin Wright Penn), a loving, but unstable failed actress named Claire (Renee Zellweger), and a money-hungry Russian gypsy named Rena.

As she settles in each new place, Astrid is haunted by her mother whose fierce independence borders on cold indifference. Through numerous letters and occasional visits, Ingrid defiantly reminds her daughter to hold true to the values and beliefs she taught her. But with all of her admirable talk of individuality, the jealousies and narrow-minded ways of the elder Magnussen surface.

Part monster and part mother, Pfeiffer's caged bird is the real draw here. Putting a new spin on her Dangerous Minds character, who convinced her inner-city students to read Dylan Thomas more because of how she looked than how she taught, Pfeiffer brings more dignity to a character who also draws much of her power from her striking beauty. Unlike the Southern teacher she played in the abysmal Stand and Deliver rip-off, Pfeiffer takes advantage of the richer material here and turns this sheep in wolf's clothing into a truly memorable on-screen mommy.