Marketed as a chick flick, awash in ice-princess blondes, tagged as a story about mothers and daughters, this adaptation of Janet Fitch’s novel comes to the screen primed to sucker-punch the well-meaning book-club audience. White Oleander is one tough, absorbing story, bolstered by the mighty steel of Michelle Pfeiffer’s breathtaking performance, as true to its Los Angeles setting as it is to the troubling intricacies of forging a family identity in a fractured world. Pfeiffer plays Ingrid Magnusson, a beautiful, eerily self-possessed artist raising the equally lovely Astrid (Alison Lohman) on a doctrine of individualism, nonconformity, and responsibility for one’s own capriciousness, designed to ensure that young Astrid rebels against everything except Ingrid. When Ingrid is arrested for killing her boyfriend (Billy Connolly), Astrid is flung into the uncertain world of foster care and group homes, where her need for familial connection is continually thwarted by the insecurities and deficiencies of grown-ups. Meanwhile, her mother struggles to maintain her little Mini-Me’s devotion to the nation of two that has been so ruthlessly sundered. The film’s episodic structure keeps the plot hopping—if Robin Wright Penn’s born-again ex-stripper doesn’t suit, Renee Zellweger’s emotionally fragile actress is on its way—but screenwriter Mary Agnes Donaghue doesn’t allow the characters in the wacky foster homes, however entertaining, to overshadow the central relationship. Ingrid sits in prison like a spider at the center of her web, yanking on filaments whenever Astrid and her families become too happy together. Pfeiffer’s sharp-boned beauty has never looked so cruel: She does wonders with her glowing blue eyes, letting the light in them dim and flare as Ingrid gauges her next manipulation. But the film belongs to Lohman, whose Astrid is in every scene, present and wary, angry but never self-pitying, drawing on a tiny reserve of strength to survive and respect herself in a harrowing wonderland. —Arion Berger

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