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In Full Bloom 

Actresses blossom in strong drama

If the screen version of White Oleander was an Olympic event, it's hard to tell which of the movie's four actresses would end up winning the gold. A powerfully performed drama that steadily works its way toward a satisfying wrap-up, this adaptation of Janet Fitch's best-selling novel offers complex roles to its quartet of leading ladies.And nobody's part is more complicated than that of Michelle Pfeiffer, who rewards the role with one of the finest performances of her career. She's cast as Ingrid, a talented artist and mother to 15-year-old Astrid (Alison Lohman). Ingrid clearly loves her daughter, but before long it becomes clear that she loves herself more -- hurt to the core by a philandering boyfriend, she kills him in a carefully plotted manner and soon finds herself behind bars, irresponsibly leaving young Astrid at the care of a foster home system that doesn't exactly run smoothly.

The real Los Angeles foster care system has come under fire at various points over the years, and the film reflects that crisis: Hurting for proper foster parents and not knowing what to do with a bright child like Astrid, the program sends her careening through a multitude of pit stops; at various times, Astrid finds herself the young charge of a slutty born-again Christian (Robin Wright-Penn), in the care of a loving but overly sensitive actress (Renee Zellweger) and dumped off for periodic stays at what basically amounts to a juvenile detention center for kids in dire need of placement. And as Astrid gets thrust from situation to situation, she finds herself adapting to the adults entrusted to take care of her: She discovers religion with the born-again stripper, connects emotionally with the affectionate actress, and so on. Yet through it all, there's always Ingrid, the Mommie Fearest whose hold on her daughter seemingly cannot be broken, even from behind prison walls.

Pfeiffer's physical beauty somehow seems to adapt to every role she plays -- all soft vulnerability in Dangerous Liaisons, all purring, playful sexuality in Batman Returns, all sultry seductiveness in The Fabulous Baker Boys -- and here we see the frightening side of that allure: Ingrid is a woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly, and Pfeiffer's face, seemingly more angular and hard than in any past picture, reflects that steely detachment (only when Ingrid thinks she's about to lose her daughter's loyalty do her features soften). Ingrid is a character of great contradictions -- her advice to her only child is often damaging yet also often truthful, and for all her speeches about being an independent woman, she remains a prisoner to her own limiting impulses -- and Pfeiffer isn't afraid to tackle any aspect of this woman's overwhelming personality.

Relative newcomer Lohman handles the picture's largest role with the discipline it requires: Astrid is a deep, perceptive thinker even when she's making all the wrong moves, and Lohman nails the character's slow-burn maturization beautifully. Wright-Penn's role is the most stereotypical one on view, but she still manages to wring some sympathy out of the part, while Zellweger is heartbreakingly real as a warm caregiver whose generous spirit eventually buckles under the weight of her massive insecurities.

So who wins the gold? Pfeiffer, though just barely.

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