A double sense of loss runs through the film version of Janet Fitch's bestselling novel, "White Oleander," a feeling of absence that is partly appropriate and partly not.
What's intended is the loss felt by young Astrid Magnussen, suddenly thrust into the maelstrom of a series of disturbing foster homes when her controlling, uncompromising, breathtakingly dangerous mother, Ingrid, is imprisoned for murdering her lover.
The thrust of both Fitch's impressive novel and the artful Peter Kosminsky film that's been carefully made from it is the complex and difficult route Astrid must take to become her own person, to separate from a toxic parent who is even more frightening because she loves her daughter very much.
But to watch the film version (which stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid, newcomer Alison Lohman as Astrid, and Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger as two of her foster mothers) is to feel, even if one hasn't read the novel, an unwanted sense of loss, a sense that this film, possibly inevitably, has not gotten all there is to get from Fitch's work.
This despite the fact that "White Oleander" has done many things right in its adaptation, starting with the casting of Pfeiffer, who gives a riveting, impeccable performance in what is literally and figuratively a killer role. "When I heard Michelle do Ingrid," author Fitch has said, "it raised the hair on my arms."
Fitch also signed off on Mary Agnes Donoghue's screenplay and its inevitable telescoping of events: The number of foster homes has been cut down, and Astrid's age range changed, from 12 to 19, to 15 to 18. There is also an inevitable softening of incident from a screenwriter whose best-known credit is "Beaches." Gone are some of Astrid's rougher sexual experiences, gone is a dog attack that physically scars her, and scenes with a boyfriend ("Almost Famous' " Patrick Fugit) have been beefed up and sweetened.
But even as one admires "White Oleander's" avoidance of the crasser side of melodrama, the equally powerful sense that something critical is missing refuses to go away. This is a film without a center, a film whose young protagonist should have more texture, more of a compelling voice than she does. Through no real fault of the acting, young Astrid does not compel our attention the way she must if "White Oleander" is to succeed completely on the screen.
The novel's great strength is that it is told in Astrid's voice. She may be only a teenager, but she has a vivid and wonderful way with language, a sensibility alive with thoughts like "I felt my guilt like a brand" and "A tone I'd never heard crept into her voice, serrated, like the edge of a saw." Except for the occasional voice-over, it's in the nature of the filmmaking process that this compelling voice disappears, leaving us with the usual inarticulate teenager, a character who almost by definition can't carry her intended weight. Kosminsky (whose background is mostly in British TV) has said in interviews that he cast the chameleon-like Lohman because he wanted someone "who was hard to read." Given the obstacles this kind of role presents, opaqueness doesn't seem like the best qualification.
Lohman does best when her character is challenged, and that responsibility is almost exclusively filled by the incandescent Pfeiffer, who brings power and unshakable will to her role as mother-master manipulator.
Changed from the book's poet to the more visual occupation of artist, Pfeiffer's Ingrid is a genuinely threatening individual, given to comments like "Love humiliates you, hatred cradles you" and determined, even from prison, to leave her controlling mark on all of Astrid's foster situations. "Stay away from broken people" is her motto, and in Ingrid's eyes, that means everyone but her.
Astrid's first foster home is with Starr, a born-again former stripper and recovering alcoholic who lives in Tujunga with her boyfriend, Ray (a cool Cole Hauser), and wants to know if Astrid has accepted Jesus as her savior. This character may sound like a cliche, but as played, very much against type, by Wright Penn in an excellent performance, she is completely individual and holds Astrid and our attentions almost as much as Ingrid does.
Claire Richards (Zellweger), Astrid's next placement, is quite different, an insecure actress who lives in Malibu with a husband (Noah Wyle) who's always on location. She's looking for a sister and a companion more than a child, and there's a bit of awkwardness about Zellweger's performance that sometimes serves this conception, sometimes not. By the time we get to the final foster mom, the capitalist-in-training Rena (Svetlana Efremova), Astrid's inscrutability has worn on us, and we care as little as she seems to about where she ends up.
But even though "White Oleander" (named for a plant that is both poisonous and beautiful) is not always compelling, it's a tribute to the strength of the book's conception and the good work that's gone into it that it retains the power to haunt us. This may be an incomplete film, but it's also one that gives us reasons to watch.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence. Times guidelines: Disturbing in myriad ways, much more than its rating would have you believe.
Alison Lohman...Astrid Magnussen
Robin Wright Penn...Star
Michelle Pfeiffer...Ingrid Magnussen
Renee Zellweger...Claire Richards
Svetlana Efremova...Rena Grushenka
Patrick Fugit...Paul Trout
Noah Wyle...Mark Richards
In association with Pandora, a John Wells production. Director Peter Kosminsky. Producers John Wells, Hunt Lowry. Executive producers Kristin Harms, Stacy Cohen, E.K. Gaylord II, Patrick Markey. Screenplay Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch. Cinematography Elliot Davis. Costumes Susie De Santo. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Donald Graham Burt. Art director Anthony Rivero Stabley. Set decorator Bryony Foster. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.