Where does a mother end and a daughter begin?
Fine performances and sensitive direction keep White Oleander from being a routine tearjerker. Adapted from Janet Fitch's bestseller (an Oprah's Book Club selection), this hard-edged drama boasts a reputable cast, but 23-year-old newcomer Alison Lohman steals the film from her A-list costars. As a troubled teen whose controlling mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been jailed for murder, Lohman is the film's heart and soul, bouncing between foster homes and rushing toward independence in a world of disappointing adults. After surviving episodic stints with a trashy born-again Christian (Robin Wright Penn), a suicidal housewife (Renée Zellweger), and a Russian immigrant (Zvetlana Efremova), she finds comfort with another outcast (Patrick Fugit), leaving behind the mothers who failed her. Making his feature directorial debut, British stage and TV veteran Peter Kosminsky creates a showcase for formidable actresses, each given moments to shine. White Oleander lacks the emotional depth of Fitch's novel, but it speaks volumes about the delicate balance of freedom and responsibility. --Jeff Shannon