Nothing sinks this movie-lover’s heart faster than voice-over narration as a picture begins. Often, it’s a sign that the movie has been adapted from a book built on language too plummy to discard; just as often, it’s a sign that the filmmakers don’t trust their own medium to do its work. White Oleander, based on the best-selling, Oprah-certified novel by Janet Fitch, opens in a volley of voice-over, as Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman), a grave, yellow-haired young woman, fingers the collage boxes she has made and waxes literary over the influence of her magnetically difficult mother, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer). Flashback follows, as flashback must.
Ingrid, we are told, is an artist and, apparently, an irresistibly beautiful vial of poison. (The flowery oleander of the title manufactures its own poison too.) ”Love humiliates you. Hate cradles you,” the mother advises her daughter, backing up her fortune-cookie philosophy with action. Soon enough, Ingrid is in prison, convicted of killing a boyfriend, a cloudy bruise on Pfeiffer’s lovely temple the only sign of jailhouse wear and tear. This leaves Astrid abandoned in the hot Santa Ana winds of Southern California, about to begin a Dickensian (or is it Winfreyesque?) journey through a harsh land of foster homes, which is awful for the girl — but a pick-me-up for the movie. Finally, this overfertilized hothouse bloom of a production comes to life.
And it does so on the sheer theatrical strength of the star actresses who humanize Fitch’s cast of melodramatically unfortunate women, while British TV director Peter Kosminsky, making his American-feature debut, stays out of the way. (The screenplay is by Mary Agnes Donoghue, who previously did the honors with ”Beaches.”) A mercurial, formerly alcoholic stripper-turned-Christian who terrifies her untended gaggle of foster kids would appear to be a crummy candidate for caretaker, but Robin Wright Penn brings believable, unguarded fury to the role. Renée Zellweger summons such lovely, tremulous warmth as Claire, the psychologically fragile rich man’s lonely wife who offers Astrid one brief interlude of motherly love, that she’s acutely missed when she’s gone.
Impressively unflappable and natural, 23-year-old Lohman — whose best known credit is perhaps a role on Fox’s short-lived ”Pasadena” — holds the whole plot together skillfully as Astrid changes physical looks and personality style to what she thinks will suit each living situation she’s in. Pfeiffer overcomes the dubiousness of Pfeiffer playing someone like Ingrid — model beauty as monster mom — by not flinching from the toxicity of a woman who…honestly, makes no sense whatsoever.
I mean, honestly. Millions love Janet Fitch’s novel, and millions love movies like this, in which stars play adult children who learn how to forgive and love their parents, even though they were abused, or abandoned, or boiled in oil as kids. I admit that I love neither, but I credit the performers in ”White Oleander” for showing the story, while so many of the flowery words they’re made to speak reek of telling.