Hard-knock life

White Oleander tries too hard for the realism it craves.

White Oleander Starring Michele Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn. Directed by Peter Kosminsky, Rated PG-13.
Rated 2.0

The heroine’s hard life shown in White Oleander isn’t just tough. It is unremittingly, operatically, viciously hard. And, while that’s not the problem with the film, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer and relative newcomer Alison Lohman, it doesn’t help.

Written for the screen by Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches) from Janet Fitch’s praised novel, Oleander centers on Astrid (Lohman) as she bounces from foster homes across Los Angeles in the years following her mother’s (Pfeiffer) conviction for murdering her boyfriend.

While it’s trying harder than the usual melodrama to deal with the knotty bonds between mothers and daughters, it eventually staggers then collapses under the weight of Astrid’s triumph-over-adversity story.

Her trials, including her run-ins with a caricature of a Bible-thumping hypocrite and needy Malibu actress, are shown with such relentless bleakness the film becomes a catch-all catalogue of horrors. There’s no time to soak up the impact of Astrid’s struggles or the whiplash cruelty of her mother’s advice. During prison visits, Mom literally advocates the healing power of hate. After awhile it becomes not so much a character struggle through a harsh world but a pinball game, with Astrid bouncing from one hard-knocks cliché to another.

This girl gets thrashed around in foster families the same way James Bond saves the world. And it’s about as believable. Earnest in execution, lavished in gritty details, Oleander comes off like a film striving for authenticity rather than exuding it.

But, oddly, its main character undergoes no transformation from the experience. Doe-eyed at the swirl around her, Lohman struggles to bring a reality to Astrid’s woes, but the script has her spouting out-of-the-blue, wise-beyond-her-years observations nearly from the first scene. We never get the impression she’s formed by her experience.

Directed by Peter Kosminsky, whose previous films were made for TV, Oleander is better than what it sounds like (a pumped up victim-of-the-week Lifetime film), but that’s admittedly faint praise.