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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » White Oleander
White Oleander
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // March 11, 2003
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted February 28, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Although I've never read the novel by Janet Fitch (a selection for Oprah's "Book of the Month" club), I found the film adaptation fairly enjoyable. While certainly not without some issues, the film succeeds rather well due to a fairly restrained tone and fine performances from the film's leads.

The film opens by introducing us to Astrid Magnussen (Allison Lohman, in a very fine performance), who trails after Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), her artist mother and, essentially, the White Oleander (a beautiful flower that's poisonous) of the title. Only a few minutes later, Ingrid is being arrested for the murder of her boyfriend and Astrid is being taken away by family services.

She ends up at the home of the bible-thumping Starr (Robin Wright Penn) and her boyfriend (Cole Hauser). This ends very badly, as Starr becomes jealous of what she thinks is a relationship between Astrid and her boyfriend. She then ends up in a halfway house and befriends Paul (Patrick Fugit of "Almost Famous"), before being adopted by an actress (Renee Zellweger) and her director husband (Noah Wyle). Although Astrid believes she's finally found a bit of happiness, the actress goes to speak to Ingrid in prison and things fall apart.

"White Oleander" is certainly an example of a film that must be held together by one role. The film's structure is certainly episodic and, given that, the audience's interest has to be held by that character. While the film does become somewhat repetitive at times, the journey that we take with Astrid is involving largely because Lohman's portrayal of the brief highs and many lows of the character is so convincing. Pfeiffer, whose character still looks awfully pretty in her jail sequences, still manage to convince with her performance, which is more subtle and restrained than hers sometimes are. Zellweger is excellent, too. Fugit ("Almost Famous") has nice chemistry with Lohman, while she and Zellweger seem like sisters.

Still, with all the film's positives, it just feels like its missing something. The narration simply isn't necessary, although Lohman handles it fairly well. Along those lines, the film does offer some traditional melodrama "speeches" that don't sound like something most people would say, but the actresses handle them fairly well.

Although I enjoyed the film's subtle nature, maybe it needed a fierce moment or two more. A bit of tightening and a few fixes, and this could have been a more involving film than it is. The performances are there and director Peter Kosminsky has the right idea on how to handle the material, but it seems to have lost something in the transition between novel and screen - for example, the Wright Penn character is never really developed. It's as if the performances remain more convincing than the material. The performances overcome the screenplay, but never entirely. Once the film enters the third act, where Astrid's new foster mother makes her hit the street to gather used clothing for sale, it really starts to stumble. This section could have been more well-developed or maybe just dumped entirely.

Issues aside, I liked "White Oleander"'s core story of a young woman growing up and finding her independence in the midst of some incredibly difficult conditions. Lohman's performance is certainly compelling and the finest thing about the film, while the supporting roles are filled quite well by some of Hollywood's most talented actresses.


VIDEO: "White Oleander" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Warner Brothers. The presentation is another fine offering from the studio, presenting the film with fine clarity, detail and a pleasing lack of the usual faults. Elliot Davis's cinematography again (see "I Am Sam" or "Happy Campers") goes a bit overboard on the filters, but that doesn't effect the viewing experience. Sharpness and detail are perfectly fine; the film seems to have a slightly soft appearance by intention, but solid detail is still present.

Flaws were occasionally present during the show, but never did they cause much in the way of bother. Light edge enhancement is present in a couple of scenes, as was a compression artifact or two, but these were minor issues. The print used seemed to be in perfectly fine condition, with no marks or wear and only a hint of grain.

The film's color palette was bright and vivid for the most part, but quite a few scenes had a blue tint to them. Although I didn't see the picture theatrically, I'm guessing this is accurate to the intent of the filmmakers. Overall, a nice transfer.

SOUND: "White Oleander" is presented by Warner Brothers in Dolby Digital 5.1. Given the nature of the movie, it's to be expected that the surrounds really aren't given the opportunity to do very much. Aside from some very light ambience and slight reinforcement of Thomas Newman's enjoyable score, this is a forward-focused presentation. Dialogue remained clear and crisp, while Newman's score was clear and a bit quiet, not really getting much presence in the soundtrack.

EXTRAS: The DVD offers a commentary from director Peter Kosminsky, author Janet Fitch and producer John Wells. This is a pleasant, low-key commentary that, while a little "praise-heavy" at times, is still intelligent and insightful. Kosminsky dominates the conversation, offering some involving stories from the set, as well as his opinions of the story and thoughts on development of the production. Fitch shares her opinions of the film edition of her novel, while Wells shares some additional tidbits and opinions. It's a nice discussion - I found a few dry points while browsing through it, but it's still a balanced discussion of story and production information.

Also: 6 minutes of deleted scenes are offered, with no optional commentary from the filmmakers. "The Journey of White Oleander" and "The Making of White Oleander" are fluffy promotional pieces that are made interesting only by the occasional interview that provides some enjoyable insight into characters. Otherwise, they're fairly clip-heavy and mainly discuss the story. The two documentaries run for about a total of 25 minutes combined. Rounding out the DVD are bios and the film's trailer.

Final Thoughts: While it involved me and I was impressed by the performances, the screenplay never quite seemed to come together quite as well as I thought it would. Warner Brothers offers a fine DVD, with good audio/video quality and some enjoyable supplements. A purchase recommendation for the film's fans, while others should consider a rental.

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