[box cover]

White Oleander

There's the chick-flick and there's the woman's picture. Chick flicks usually consist of Demi Moore shedding her trademark teardrop, Julia Roberts cackling, or Susan Sarandon dying (preferably of cancer). Pandering chick-flicks cause too many women to embarrassingly fall for easy resolutions, roses-and-champagne romance, and cheesy releases of death. However, the woman's picture is an entirely different entity. Yes, it concerns women, but in a much more classical, Joan Crawford-esque, beautifully bitchy way. George Cukor made brilliant woman's pictures (notably The Women), Douglas Sirk made the most stratospheric woman's picture with Imitation of Life, and Bette Davis pretty much took over any film she appeared in, whether evil or innocent, and made it a Class-A woman's picture. Women in film are hard to find — hence, discovering a modern woman's film is a rare thing indeed. Women in film were touted as surprisingly relevant in 2002 with The Hours, Chicago, and Far From Heaven garnering acclaim. But the most ignored, and perhaps purest, woman's picture of the year was Peter Kosminksy's White Oleander — an almost-immaculate modern Hollywood version of psycho sisterhood. An unapologetic melodrama, Oleander was a much-overlooked masterstroke that gave Michelle Pfeiffer the greatest role of her career. Never mind that the novel, written by Janet Fitch, was a huge hit on Oprah's Book Club — none of the women portrayed here would have anything to do with Oprah or her club. They're either gorgeously sociopathic or simply too messed up with their own problems.

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Ingrid (Pfeiffer) in particular. A beautiful, self-sufficient L.A. artist with a daughter Astrid (a disarmingly remarkable Alison Lohman), she's proud of her singleness, proud of her intelligence and beauty, and fond of sayings like "Love strangles. Hate cradles you." But after she's arrested for murder early in the picture (she weakens for a man and kills him after he's cheated on her), the picture turns to young Astrid, who's taken to a series of foster homes — all dysfunctional and, like the movie, almost all blonde. As her mother sits in prison (looking lovely: "Prison agrees with me," she says without irony), Astrid moves from blonde to blonde, from the Jesus-loving, ex-stripper sexpot alcoholic nightmare Starr (Robin Wright-Penn) to the foster version of near-heaven with the sweet but insecure Malibu-living film-actress Claire (a perfectly cast Renee Zellweger). Finally gaining some normalcy, Astrid's contentment is interrupted when her mother gets jealous. Ingrid wants to meet Claire. In a tense scene that's like the female version of a squirm-inducing Scorsese moment, prison-yard Ingrid (who's disgusted by the needy, weak foster families) just sinks her teeth into Claire. In a private, hushed conversation, she wields such genius and beauty that the dazzled Claire can only follow her underlying orders. Without giving anything away, this leads to another family. Angry at her pathological mother, Astrid chooses a money-loving, chain-smoking, non-blonde Russian, presumably because the heartbroken teen will never have to worry about becoming close to this "mother." It is here where the hardened Astrid commits, in a film of blondes, the ultimate shocker by dying her hair black.

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Its touches like these that make White Oleander so worthwhile, that the detail of a woman's hairstyle or clothing choice dictates how the world views her (which is certainly true) and how Astrid chooses to re-create herself outside of her mother. Though it is a movie about the foster-care system, it works better as a series of vignettes about womanhood, in all its varied, sullied, but nevertheless glammed-up incarnations. It's also one of the few movies where the picture's center, Ingrid, is a true antihero — a charismatic badass we can't help but love. The cool, blonde, blue-eyed waif Pfeiffer fits the role perfectly, giving a performance that's something like a merging of Grace Kelly with Ted Bundy. Though criticized for looking too beautiful for prison, critics missed the point of the movie — that no person or system can grind this woman down. When her daughter shows weakness, she declares with Swedish pride, "We're not like that. We're the Vikings." Yes Michelle! Bitch-slap all those sappy, stomach-churning chick-flicks into oblivion! Warner Home Video presents a clean (and blonde) anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of White Oleander on DVD with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio with English and French subtitles. Extras include a commentary by director Peter Kosminksy, producer John Wells, and novelist Janet Fitch, who intelligently, but not thrillingly, muse over character motivations and the work of adapting the novel to screen. Also on board are two similar behind-the-scenes shorts ("The Journey of White Oleander" and "The Making of White Oleander"), a few additional scenes that would seem superfluous in the film, and the original theatrical trailer. Snap-case.
—Kim Morgan

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