Lives of Violence

There's a first time for everything, and I believe that seeing White Oleander tonight is the first time I've ever thought a movie was good and on top of that go read the book it was adapted from.

Why is that unusual? First of all, a well-done film is generally a pretty encapsulated entity - you don't feel like there's a lot more you need to know to complete the story. That's why people so often don't like an obvious opening for a sequel. So, then if we've completed the story, why read the book when we know how it turns out?

White Oleander tells the story of a young girl, Astrid, who is tossed around between foster homes in L.A. after her mother is put in jail for murder (no father on the scene here). It's a very complicated story, shown here with three foster families, Astrid's relationship with her mother, recurring flashbacks to the murder victim, and the numbing purgatory of orphanage housing that resembles prison more than anything else.

Yes, that's a lot to deal with, but the filmmakers have made some great choices in presenting the story, focusing on elements of character rather than every detail of the plot. It works because it's a character-driven story and it's clear that a lot of plot has been cut out, some of which we are allowed to guess at, but other hints are left without confirmation - yet still they reinforce the confusion in Astrid's life.

This ability to cover up an incomplete plot is a wonder, but it is still covering up something. I go back and forth in my mind about whether that matters. In terms of enjoying the movie, it won't make a difference so long as you're open to the emotional heart of the story - and if you're not open to that, you wouldn't enjoy this one if it were a complete movie either. At the same time, White Oleander is falling short on a valid technicality. It's a very good film, but not quite eligible for the higher ranks of cinematic feats. It's not the only thing, but I keep coming back to a reference of "they had you on suicide watch" which is too powerful a reference to make without showing it, or at least its impact.

A movie like this can't succeed without great performances. Newcomer Alison Lohman is Astrid, and does an amazing job of making a life that largely happens to her be interesting. Michelle Pfeiffer is the dominant, almost sinister, mother whose cynical view on the world motivates her to toughen up her daughter as best she can. Our three foster mothers are all excellent performances. Robin Wright Penn does the white trash mother with a contradictory life thing perfectly. Renée Zellweger is an underemployed actress, complete with a clip from her actual stint in The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Svetlana Efremova is the most honest of the foster mothers, running her little faux brood like a business.

There's some male actors in here too, but they are in every case secondary to the females. Cole Hauser is the one with room for an actual performance as Penn's married-but-not-to-her live-in guy. Noah Wyle's character exists to be mostly absent. Patrick Fugit is the friend, maybe boyfriend, Astrid meets in the system. It's nice to seem him older than in Almost Famous, but again there's no room for a real performance.

I saw White Oleander as the opening night film of the Denver International Film Festival. It wasn't until after buying the ticket I learned the movie opens the day after this screening! It's a strange choice to make for a festival, and I kept thinking I could have saved ten bucks or so off the cost of the ticket by waiting a day. But then I would have missed producer John Wells, actor Cole Hauser, and the book's author Janet Fitch. They didn't have too much to say outside general admiration for the final product. I will be glad at least that a "portion of the proceeds" benefits a local law foundation for children in foster families. Plus I get to post this review and tell people it's worth braving the opening day crowds (assuming that's what people take from I write!).

And fancy this, I come home, turn on the tube (an all too frequent occurrence, given the number of my reviews from cable), and there's Alison Lohman coming on the Tonight Show - her first national television exposure, and relatively short, but she comes off charming and not unlike the warmer parts of Astrid.

And while y'all are standing in line this weekend, I'll be dusting off my library card.

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