White Oleander

“White Oleander” subscribes to the philosophy that if your central character suffers a lot and lives to tell about it, it is therefore an inspiring movie. “See how she didn’t kill herself?” we’re supposed to say. “Wow, that gives me a reason to live, too.”

What is lacking in the film, from TV director Peter Kosminsky and based on Janet Fitch’s Oprah-endorsed novel, is an explanation of why the teen-age protagonist is put through so much turmoil. It makes her stronger, yes — but what does it do to the audience?

The resilient central figure is Astrid (Alison Lohman), who is bounced from one foster home to another after her flighty artist mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is imprisoned for killing a man.

One foster mom is a paranoid Jesus freak with a live-in boyfriend; one’s a depressed failed actress; one’s a Russian immigrant who steals trash and sells it at swap meets. These are played with reasonable flair and personality by Robin Wright Penn, Renee Zellweger and Svetlana Efremova, respectively, and my only question is why the film didn’t focus more on the horrendously lackluster foster-parent screening process that apparently exists in California.

The film supposes that merely watching someone triumph over adversity is the same thing as receiving renewed strength to triumph over adversity yourself. But the “triumph” in the film is only after so much drudgery that it would be impossible for the post-trauma high to match the mid-trauma low. We’re never as uplifted as we are depressed, in other words.

Alison Lohman’s performance is admirable, and Michelle Pfeiffer is once again beautifully tough as the hardened prison babe. I just wish they were performing somewhere other than in a morose, dour drama like this one.

C (1 hr., 49 min.; PG-13, a fair amount of profanity, some sexual innuendo, some intense themes and a little violence.)