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Movie review, 'White Oleander'

"White Oleander," a polyurethane blossom from modern Los Angeles, is a movie that really nags your conscience. It's a faithful, well-produced, well-cast version of an often moving and perceptive novel by Janet Fitch about a young girl's painful odyssey through a series of state facilitates and foster homes. It's the sort of film major studios don't make often enough, the kind that you would like to admire wholeheartedly when they do.

Not this time -- though all the elements seem to be there. Director Peter Kosminsky, maker of the highly praised TV drama "Warriors," has style, grace and a talent for detail. The production, shot all around L.A., is lavish. And the cast -- headed by newcomer Alison Lohman as the peripatetic teen heroine Astrid Magnussen, Michelle Pfeiffer as her embittered mother, and Renee Zellweger, Robin Wright Penn and Svetlana Efremova as the three foster mothers -- is strong, smart, and in some cases exemplary. (Zellweger has rarely been this moving, Pfeiffer rarely this scary.)

The story, which hews closely to Fitch's novel, is potentially very powerful. It's a portrait of the fragility of modern middle-class American family life, as experienced by a privileged but fatherless young Angeleno whose life is suddenly shattered.

Astrid (Lohman) is a sensitive teen whose headstrong, gifted multimedia artist mom Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is involved in a self-destructive affair with macho L.A. high-liver Barry Kolker (Billy Connolly). When Barry cheats on Ingrid and casually brags, she kills him. She is sent to the slammer, and Astrid is sent into the arms of the state --first a youth facility, then a succession of three foster homes.

Foster mom Starr (Penn) is a born-again sexpot, with a Southern-fried veneer. Starr becomes wildly jealous of Astrid when her boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser) starts making moves. Hapless, warm-hearted Clair Richards (Zellweger) is the neglected wife of yet another cheating L.A. louse, yuppie creep Mark Richards (Noah Wyle), who conducts multiple affairs on business trips and leaves Clair devastated. Rena (Efremova) is a cynical Soviet emigre who uses her foster girls as cheap labor for her funky resale operation.

This is an astonishingly varied group, and the film doesn't spend time trying to make the nightmarish shifts plausible. As Astrid moves from one troubled household and soap-opera sorrow to the next, she grows more hardened and cynical. She adopts in turn the styles and temperaments (or in Starr's case, the sanctimony) of her new moms while her old mom, Ingrid, keeps railing venomously from prison. One bright note sustains Astrid: the love, support and winsome smiles of fellow foster kid Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit), a shaggy comic artist who supposedly embodies human qualities absent almost everywhere else. Is it a sad augury of the movie's bleak world view that Paul is the least convincing character here?

We're often starved these days for major studio movies that connect with real life and real people, in ways both honest and entertaining. And actresses are starved for the kind of opportunities these roles seem to offer: the down-home vibes and volatile hypocrisy of Penn's Starr; the melting vulnerability of Zellweger's Clair; the self-absorbed rage of Pfeiffer's Ingrid and the shifting moods and naked reactions of Lohman's Astrid.

Yet "White Oleander," for all its strengths and ambitions, seems shallow. Scenarist Mary Agnes Donoghue wrote the classically sappy "Beaches," but "White Oleander" doesn't have a Bette Midler or a "Wind Beneath My Wings" to sock it home. Even when I saw it under ideal conditions in a gala presentation at the Toronto Film Festival, I found it to be a film lacking something essential at its center.

Part of the problem may be a matter of style. The old Hollywood domestic or family dramas, which flourished until the late '60s, were told in a classic, elegant grammar that, while occasionally too theatrical, was capable of releasing real beauty and emotion. (You will hear that voice again in another "woman's picture" deliberately shot '50s-style, Todd Haynes' brilliant "Far from Heaven," which will be released in November.)

Instead, most modern domestic dramas strive for greater realism, flash and zip, a closer connection to audiences supposedly attuned to the rapid-fire pace of today's action movies. That's what happens here. The mix of grit and lyricism doesn't jell.

When "White Oleander" gets corny -- as in almost every scene involving Fugit's Paul, a dull, "sensitive" artist whose main human virtue may be his harmlessness). When it sketches in the emotional-dramatic backgrounds, it gives us too much, too fast.

The whole film, in fact, seems too fast for its own good. It plays like a synopsis, jumping from scene to scene, grief to grief, and it doesn't let us relax into the various worlds it's creating. That was a prime virtue of the great old-style and modern family dramas, and it's a virtue too often absent here.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"White Oleander"

Directed by Peter Kosminsky; written by Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch; photographed by Elliot Davis; edited by Chris Ridsale; production designed by Donald Graham Burt; music by Thomas Newman; produced by John Wells. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, Oct. 11. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence).
Astrid Magnussen -- Alison Lohman
Ingrid Magnussen -- Michelle Pfeiffer
Starr -- Robin Wright Penn
Clair Richards -- Renee Zellweger
Rene -- Sevtlana Efremova
Paul Trout -- Patrick Fugit
Barry Kolker -- Billy Connolly Mark Richards -- Noah Wyle

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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