Cramming the Oprah-blessed doorstopper into less than two hours, White Oleander races from one tragic episode to the next with the abandon of a drunk speeding through a driver’s test, leaving hardships scattered like toppled orange pylons in its wake. Even before everything goes entirely wrong, 14-year-old Astrid (Alison Lohman) laments that she’s a burden to Ingrid, her artist-poet mother, played with steely-eyed self-importance by Michelle Pfeiffer. All glower power and condescension, Ingrid stays up till dawn on the roof absorbing inspiration for her precious verse, privileges gallery openings over parents’ night, and lectures Astrid on how to maintain an emotional fortress (never let a man spend the night). Until, that is, she meets unctuous, pony-tailed Barry (Billy Connolly), who sweeps her off her feet and then promptly jilts her. Ingrid’s overwrought revenge scheme—which involves a poisonous concoction made from the titular flower—would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pretentious.
When Ingrid goes to jail, the film sends Astrid pinballing between foster homes with an appetite for dysfunction. Poised somewhere between her mother’s model of independence and the desire to find caring adults, she shape-shifts with each new placement: born-again seducer of her foster mom’s beau; honor-roll caretaker of a depressive actress; puffy-eyed kids’-home survivalist. The only constant is her one-note mommie dearest, who continues to play puppet master from behind bars, castigating Astrid to make friends with her loneliness (presumably fodder for future creative endeavors) and to resist the affections of other people, who are just “cattle . . . in the way.”
Director Peter Kosminsky finds emotional complexity when he slows down enough to let Astrid step outside the cycle of abuse, particularly in her ebb-and-flow friendship with fellow foster kid Paul, a nerdy pseudo-goth comic-strip artist played by Almost Famous‘s Patrick Fugit. But Oleander ultimately sacrifices nuance to tidy epiphanies about personal growth. Ingrid realizes that mothers, like flowers, can be both beautiful and dangerous. In the final scene, she surveys her latest art project: suitcases teeming with collaged images of her brutal odyssey. When Astrid closes each box, she’s supposedly packing away the past, but it’s more like shutting the lids on dustbins full of forced metaphors and jerry-rigged pathos.
Brown Sugar draws a belabored association between romance and hip-hop, and it’s hard not to wish the parallel lines would hurry up and converge. On a sunny day in the early ’80s, Bronx youngsters Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) meet during a defining moment—the first time they hear Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. Now, as adult best friends, they fretfully chase after their aesthetic ideal, Sidney as the editor of XXL magazine and Dre as a scout for a profit-over-product record label. Unfortunately, they fail to pursue the right love interests, namely each other. Despite get-real admonitions from their friends (casually wisecracking Queen Latifah and drolly irreverent Mos Def), Dre and Sid both settle for star-crossed relationships with people who don’t swoon over hip-hop.
Sidney cathects music with blunt eroticism throughout. “I don’t have to pretend with hip-hop, and hip-hop doesn’t have to pretend with me,” she muses. After countless misunderstandings, she and Dre finally get together, but their love fails to resonate as anything more than a shared musical passion.