There's always been something a little scary about Michelle Pfeiffer ' those glassy blue eyes, the tautness of her skin, that throbbing blood vessel that follows the path of her left optic nerve. Perfection can be alarming, and of all our major actresses Pfeiffer comes the closest to perfection; everything's in exactly the right place. And her only flaw, instead of a well-placed mole, is that damn blood vessel, which suggests rivers of passion flowing under an ice-cold exterior. It's like something out of Poe.
In White Oleander, Pfeiffer isn't the lead, but she dominates the movie, like a death threat. As Ingrid, a single-mother artist who considers her daughter one of her finest creations, Pfeiffer drains herself of all sorrow and pity, and what's left seems reptilian, predatory. Ingrid is a serious artist, which is another way of saying you better not stand in her way. But she also has what can only be called a man problem: She can't live with them, she can't kill them. Or can she? Dumped by her boyfriend early on in the movie, Ingrid prepares a secret potion of beautiful poison.
Hence the white oleander of the film's title, which is a metaphor for Ingrid's own poisonous beauty. Based on a novel by Janet Fitch that got the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval, White Oleander is mostly about Ingrid's daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman), who is left on her own when Ingrid gets hauled off to prison. Astrid narrates the movie, so we know she makes it through, but in the meantime we have to watch this teenage mama's girl negotiate her way through the California foster-care system. And let me tell you, it's one hair-raising gauntlet.
First up is Robin Wright Penn's Starr, a former alcoholic/cokehead/stripper who's found Jesus but still misplaces him on occasion. Then there's Renee Zellweger's Claire, a TV director's wife who may be the loneliest woman in Los Angeles. Like Ingrid, Starr and Claire have man problems, and their solutions are about as deadly. But thanks in part to some wonderful performances, director Peter Kosminsky manages to keep the drama from curdling into melodrama. White Oleander never feels less than real, even when it reminds you of a fairy tale.
Ingrid and Astrid ' the names are almost too intimately related, like Hansel and Gretel. And the heroic quest that Astrid must undertake is escaping her mother's shadow. "Prison agrees with me," Ingrid tells Astrid during one of Astrid's visits. "It's kill or be killed." But it's difficult to raise a daughter from behind bars; and Astrid, like a chameleon, takes on the shadings of her foster moms, which drives Ingrid up the walls of her cell. You can't choose your parents, the movie seems to say, but you can choose when to listen and when to ignore them.
As Astrid, newcomer Lohman more than holds her own against some fiercely talented actresses. She looks a little like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which gives an edge to her Lolita-ish ripeness. A coming-of-age film, White Oleander is ultimately about resilience, Astrid doing everything she can to avoid becoming her mother, even while the foster-care system does everything it can to both save and destroy her. The script's schematic; Astrid's life passes by in chapters. But life does that sometimes, keeps starting over and over again while searching for a happy ending.