Michelle Pfeiffer, White Oleander
Credit: White Oleander: Vivian Zink

”Oprah is being shown an advance copy of the movie,” says British director Peter Kosminsky (1994’s TV movie ”Wuthering Heights”). Smart man. If America’s favorite tastemaker — whose book-club recommendation of Janet Fitch’s mother-daughter novel propelled it to 18 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list — builds buzz, then her flock will come. At least that’s the idea.

She’ll be glad to hear that Kosminsky stays true to the lows and hard-won highs of the 1999 novel. Fourteen-year-old Astrid Magnussen (newcomer Alison Lohman) enters the Los Angeles foster-care system when her charismatic devil of a mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is sent to prison for murdering her no-good boyfriend. Astrid turns tricks, contemplates suicide, and is shuffled into the arms of temporary moms played by Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn. ”It comes across as this big movie because of the actresses who are in it,” says Kosminsky. ”But basically this is an art-house movie.” With a budget to match: He squeezed Warner Bros. for a mere $16 million (”Begging doesn’t even begin to do justice to the degree of self-flagellation required”), and Pfeiffer, Zellweger, and Penn each took dramatic pay cuts.

While some of Hollywood’s biggest, blondest stars are all here, the film rests on the shoulders of young Lohman. Kosminsky had casting directors working in five cities, and saw more than 200 girls before discovering his Astrid. The 22-year-old actress (”Dragonfly”), who, in her first starring role, spars on screen with Pfeiffer, used her nerves to her character’s advantage. ”It worked in a way,” says Lohman. ”[The character’s] mother is just this beautiful, untouchable goddess.? Obviously, that’s not how I feel about Michelle, but of course I am intimidated by her.”

As for Kosminsky, he isn’t worried that men will be intimidated by what sounds like damp-hankie fare. ”This is a movie for people with compassionate hearts,” he says. ”And my understanding is that a lot of guys are quite keen to go see movies with Michelle Pfeiffer in them.”

THE LOWDOWN Remember ”The Deep End of the Ocean”? Didn’t think so. Let’s hope this second Michelle Pfeiffer-Oprah’s Book Club combo isn’t its waterlogged sequel.

White Oleander
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes