Dir: Peter Kosminsky. US. 2002. 109 mins
The term 'chick-flick' has been rightfully criticised for denigrating women-orientated pictures since it implies an off-putting touchy-feeliness and some sugar-coated sentiment. But in the case of White Oleander, a florid melodrama about a teenage girl's journey of painful self-discovery as she is bounced from one Los Angeles foster home to another, there is no better way to describe such a treacle treatment of a seriously sad subject. Despite a top-notch quartet of Hollywood actresses, led by a memorably poisonous Michelle Pfeiffer and young star-in-the-making Alison Lohman, the rare moments of heartbreak are overwhelmed by a cringing, clunky screenplay, some implausible caricatures, and a tinkling piano accompaniment from Thomas Newman that echoes all too cloyingly his Oscar-nominated score for American Beauty.
Warner Bros, which co-financed White Oleander together with foreign sales agent Pandora, probably expected more from its opening weekend than the $5.7m it has just grossed in North America on the back of generally supportive reviews. The signs are there already that this adaptation will face a tough time reaching out far beyond the two million readers that snapped up the best-selling Southern Gothic door-stopper, many of them at the recommendation of influential TV chat-show queen Oprah Winfrey. Overseas, where the book is rather more obscure, prospects depend entirely on cast appeal. But at a cost of just $17m to produce, and the prospect of a prolonged shelf-life because of those marketable names, no one involved in this widely pre-sold production will be unduly troubled.
The choice of the UK's Peter Kosminsky as director is intriguing. Although best known in the cinema world for his 1992 adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, in which he introduced Ralph Fiennes to the big screen, Kosminsky's filmmaking reputation has been largely forged in the no-holds-barred crucible of British docu-drama. He has been responsible for several provocative television productions including 1996's notorious No Child Of Mine, based on the shocking true story of a little girl, sexually abused at home and in-care, who became a prostitute at the age of 11. But while there are certainly some thematic parallels between that fictionalised account and White Oleander, there is nothing particularly hard-hitting or emotionally wrenching about Kosminsky's Hollywood baptism. Only the perpetual use of handheld cameras and a tendency to keep out of his actors' way betray his roots in docu-realism.
Even had he wanted to pursue a far grittier approach, it's doubtful that Kosminsky could have taken the suds out of the some the soapier elements in White Oleander. As condensed from Janet Fitch's debut novel, the film still boils down to a credulity-straining succession of tragic episodes for Lohman's central character, a fragile 14-year-old girl named Astrid who becomes the victim of circumstance just a few too many times. Her ice-goddess of a mother, played to the frosty hilt by an imperious Pfeiffer, is thrown behind bars for murder, and now her daughter's fate lies with the Californian foster care system. Each time Astrid falls into the arms of a different surrogate mother, her appearance and demeanour changes as she tries desperately to earn their acceptance.
Eventually, this tremulous teenager gains the courage to be who she wants to be, even to the point of challenging her destructive mother's iron will and pursuing her own personal growth. This epiphany might have been more moving had White Oleander resisted the temptation to close out the film, just as it began, with a voice-over speech declaring her new self-realised self. Real movie redemption doesn't need such artificial crutches.
Prod cos: A John Wells production in association with Pandora.
US dist: Warner Bros
Int'l sales: Pandora (+1 818 954 3600)
Prods: John Wells, Hunt Lowry.
Exec prods: Patrick Markey, Kristin Harms, Stacy Cohen, E.K. Gaylord II.
Scr: Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch.
DoP: Elliot Davis
Ed: Chris Ridsdale
Prod des: Donald Graham Burt
Sound: Steve Bowerman
Mus: Thomas Newman
Main cast: Alison Lohman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger, Patrick Fugit, Noah Wyle, Svetlana Efremova, Cole Hauser, Billy Connolly.