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Photograph by Vivian Zink

Our Lady of the Flowers: Michelle Pfeiffer fingers some blooms before she gets fingered by the law in 'White Oleander.'

L.A. Women

'White Oleander' lays it on thick, but the lushness gets to you

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S A CERTAIN school of writing about L.A. that fantasizes about the place being leveled by fire. The Frankenstein of cities is always being threatened by torches. The opening scenes of White Oleander start off with references to the Santana winds--the desert sirocco, heralding the fire season.

These winds have spawned literary torrents of hot air and fantasies of punishment. Novelist Nathanael West's artist Tod, in 1939's Day of the Locust, spends his free time conceiving an epic painting about the burning of L.A. Raymond Chandler wrote about the Santana (he called it the Santa Ana) season as a time when "meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks." Joan Didion, disturbed by the negative ions of the winds, dreaded them as the harbinger of everything from flaming catastrophe to bad vibes.

White Oleander has Didion's own dry-ice chill to it; the opening narration from Janet Fitch's novel could have come straight from Play It As It Lays. This flamboyant story centers on a mother's weapon: poisoned milk. The director, Peter Kosminsky, is English. Like a lot of visitors, he's fascinated by the flammable city of L.A. This film boasts 58 different L.A. locations--more proof that atmosphere often trumps disbelief.

The film is an L.A. gothic about a gentle Southern California girl who is batted about like a shuttlecock between foster homes. In the opening scene, Ingrid beckons her 15-year-old daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman), to sit on the porch overlooking a canyon, to enjoy the heat of the Santana. Ingrid turns to us, and we see that she is Michelle Pfeiffer. The law of life is that blonde beauty ages, reddens, wears out; it hasn't happened to Pfeiffer. Her face is sharpened by age; her blue eyes are like pinpricks from the bright light. She seems to crackle with power.

But one morning, the police come for Ingrid. They arrest her for murdering her boyfriend. In short time, a court sentences Ingrid to jail for 35 years, and her daughter must endure the mercy of the foster system.

Astrid's first foster home is in a remote canyon plagued by brush fires. The house belongs to a floozy redneck named Starr, an ex-topless dancer who found the Lord. (Robin Wright Penn's performance is so overdecorated that it bulldozes any compassion we might have for Starr.) Unfortunately, Astrid's attraction to Starr's boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser) ends this episode in violence.

After a stint in an orphanage, Astrid is farmed out to tender, sad Claire, who's in the movie business. Claire is played by a very touching Renée Zellweger, who is made up to look 15 years older than she is. From there, Astrid gets herself adopted by a swap-meet booth proprietress (Svetlana Efremova), a Russian immigrant Fagan who makes her girls pick through the garbage in Beverly Hills. At this point, the traumatized Astrid appears in full Hollywood Boulevard punk-rock leather and makeup.

White Oleander has the compelling quality of a wild tale. Either author Fitch has really gone through the wringer or she has a truly vivid imagination. It's a pity, though, that Kosminsky and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue couldn't leave the question of Ingrid's guilt open. And though Lohman is astonishingly precise in a role that sprawls over four years, her Astrid never makes any mistakes--beside the forgivable one of falling in love. (When she gets attacked in juvenile hall, she cuts all her hair off, gets a knife and threatens her bully. The secondhand quality of this episode stands out--we've seen it in the movies.)

When it becomes clear that Astrid's going to get it again, you wish for another scene of Pfeiffer's Ingrid in the visiting yard, ready to fill her daughter's ear with prison ethics: trust no one; love no one. It's advice that makes frightening sense, considering how badly Astrid fares in the outside world.

Pfeiffer presents a uniquely chilling specimen of poisonous motherhood. Amid all this melodramatic fire and L.A. smoke, she's something icy. Watching her lay out these little aphorisms about self-reliance, it slowly dawns on us that what we're seeing is not a strong woman, but a sociopath. Pfeiffer reminds you of TV interviews with prison inmates who have elaborate, urgent theories about how the world and justice conspired against them. Nobody has as much conviction as a convict--it's a species of charisma. Seeing Pfieffer reminds you of John Waters' line "Everyone looks better when they're under arrest."

But there was something that the judges at Oprah's Book Club responded to in White Oleander, what the press notes call, unironically, a "life-affirming" ending, which knocks the edge off the tragedy. Still, as long as it lasts, this opus is really believable because of Pfeiffer, and that's one of the most basic proofs of what a star is, isn't it, a performer who can make you believe the unbelievable?

White Oleander (PG-13; 108 min.), directed by Peter Kosminsky, written by Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch, photographed by Elliot Davis and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman and Robin Wright Penn, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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