Pfeiffer does her best work here...
"White Oleander," adapted from Janet Fitch's best-selling novel, is hard and edgy about the bond between single mother and daughter, letting us see the reality of a strong artistic mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) tyrannizing her gifted daughter (Alison Lohman). After murdering her lover, mom goes to prison and daughter goes on an odyssey of self discovery in foster families, reminiscent of Burt Lancaster's episodic journey in John Cheever's "The Swimmer."
In the first home, Robin Wright Penn's fundamental Christian presides over a frenetic household but reveals the sweet chaos of people who really love each other. In the next home, vulnerable actress, foster mom Renee Zellweger brings intimate caring to Lohman at an emotional price. Russian rag picker Svetlana Efremova brings hard-nosed business into Lohman's sights to complete an education of survival. Lohman finds loving understanding with Patrick Fugit, another artist in her life, but one without an agenda.
It's been a while since I've seen as good a job at depicting the effects of a strong but flawed mother on her strong but impressionable daughter. "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" tried with Ellen Burstyn as mother and Sandra Bullock as daughter, but the film failed to engage beyond a few shouts and eccentric Southerners. "Oleander" has a brilliant artist manipulator teaching her daughter to be independent, even cold, to survive, yet the daughter has a need to be loved that draws her to older men, Christianity, and rebellion. Her psychic search for her absent father serves only to exacerbate the matter.
Pfeiffer does her best work here-- beautiful even in prison, she plays an ugly soul capable of the worst emotional tyranny over her sensitive, intelligent daughter, played with heart-breaking insight by Lohman. I was pleased with Kirsten Dunst last year in "crazy/beautiful." Just substitute Alison Lohman this year.