Splendid performances make 'White Oleander' blossom

Those intrigued by the idea of a shark devouring a cream puff could do far worse than to check out a crucial scene in "White Oleander." Dimpled, smiling Claire (Renée Zellweger, dressed in sherbet pastels) pays a prison visit to a convicted murderer, the razor-sharp Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer, dazzlingly — if incongruously — beautiful in prison denims). As foster mother to Ingrid's daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman), Claire wants to extend a hand in sisterhood, but has no idea what she's facing.

In the sunlight of the prison yard, Ingrid bares her white teeth and smiles in icy amusement as she toys with her visitor, mocking her so expertly that Claire at first isn't quite sure what's going on.

It's a perfectly played scene by two virtuoso actors, and director Peter Kosminsky has the good sense to stay the heck out of their way.

Much of the pleasure to be had in "White Oleander" is in watching its female stars revel in their screen time. Based on Janet Fitch's best-selling novel (an Oprah's Book Club selection), it's the coming-of-age story of Astrid, who's 15 when her mother is imprisoned for killing a boyfriend. Over the next three years, she travels through a series of foster homes, finally reaching adulthood and a sense of independence.

Like the book, Astrid's journey here is episodic: There's the Ingrid section (pre-arrest — it's brief), the Starr section (Astrid's first foster mother, a former stripper and born-again Christian played with gusto by Robin Wright Penn), the Claire section, the Rena section (a Russian-immigrant foster mother) and the conclusion. If this all feels a bit like a miniseries, or if the characters' tendency to talk in abstractions is occasionally frustrating, blame it on the book — but also credit Fitch with creating memorable, vivid characters.

The movie's poster, in which the four women appear blondly interchangeable, does them a disservice: These are four very different, splendid performances.

Pfeiffer dominates the film despite limited screen time. Early on, she's slow and dreamy, as if sleepwalking; soon, Ingrid's fury shows through, with a barely twitching lip and cold smile. Wright Penn, likewise, isn't afraid to be unlikable — she prances around on high heels, warily watching Astrid.

Zellweger, whose voice is the aural equivalent of a squint, plays her fragile character with angelic yet believable sweetness. And Lohman touchingly shows us a cherub-faced young woman gradually hardening in response to the instability around her.

Kosminsky, a British director making his American feature debut, shows admirable restraint with emotional material.

Consider this: When Astrid receives her first kiss (from Patrick Fugit), he just lets her be kissed — no background music, no pop song, no contrivance — and the two kids just grin at each other. It's sweet and simple, and it works just fine.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

"White Oleander"

With Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Rene Zellweger, Billy Connolly, Patrick Fugit. Directed by Peter Kosminsky, from a screenplay by Mary Agnes Donoghue, based on the novel by Janet Fitch. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements concerning dysfunctional relationships, drug content, language, sexuality and violence. Several theaters.