Little women with big problems

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If much of the summer belonged to teenage boys, with hits like "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "XXX," fall movies are paying more attention to their female counterparts. "White Oleander" and "Tuck Everlasting," both based on popular novels, focus on adolescent girls facing unusual challenges.

The two movies have little in common beyond this, but it's refreshing to see three-dimensional heroines coping at least as well with life as the machismo-drenched heroes who've been seizing the screen so often.

Not that women can't have macho tendencies, too.

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White Oleander begins when a talented artist named Ingrid Mangussen, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, abruptly kills the self-centered boyfriend who's been mistreating her. It's a traumatic event for her 15-year-old daughter, Astrid, who must now endure her mother's trial and imprisonment – and her own new life in foster care, which threatens to derail the progress she's been making in defining her own personality as she approaches womanhood.

Astrid is the main character of "White Oleander," but Ingrid stays in the picture as well, exerting as much influence on her daughter as she can during their jailhouse visits.

Ingrid is full of forceful advice, most of it centered on being strong, cultivating self-knowledge, and refusing to compromise with the world's generally low standards of what's important in a woman's life.

While much of this sounds impressive, it's hard not to notice that Ingrid is dispensing her parental wisdom from behind bars.

Astrid is very young and very much under her mother's sway, but she slowly realizes that you have to be careful when translating self-help theory into real-world agendas.

And this, too, is more easily said than done. The social-service system is doing its best to find good shelter for Astrid, shuttling her from one foster location to another in hopes that one of them will be appropriate for her. This subjects her to a series of environments, each of which proves sadly inadequate as she understands its particular shortcomings. Will she ever find the stability and security she needs to find her own proper pathway in life?

"White Oleander" benefits from heartfelt performances by Alison Lohman as Astrid and Pfeiffer as her mom, plus Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright-Penn as two of the foster parents who take her in.

What diminishes the film's impact is Mary Agnes Donoghue's schematic screenplay, which follows Astrid from home to home as unswervingly as a faithful pet.

The same trap snares director Peter Kosminsky, who shows Astrid taking on the coloration of each new household as if she had almost no mind at all, rather than the unformed but promising mind of a creative youngster who's in the process of figuring things out.

Kosminsky's filmmaking has quiet assurance in other respects, stressing psychological details over melodramatic outbursts. Too bad he hasn't realized the story's full potential.

Tuck Everlasting takes its title from a backwoods family and a closely guarded secret. After a perilously slow start, the plot kicks into gear when teenage Winnie wanders away from her overprotective parents for a walk in the woods.

There she's abducted by a young man of the Tuck family, which has something very important to hide – the gift of human immortality, available to anyone who drinks from a certain spring at their homestead.

Fearing she's discovered their hidden treasure, the Tucks hold Winnie prisoner, panicking her parents and capturing the attention of a mysterious stranger who's been poking around the territory.

From here on, the film intertwines several story lines: the search of Winnie's family for their daughter, the secret of the spring eventually revealed to Winnie by the Tucks, her gradually dawning love for a young member of the Tuck clan, and the quest of the outsider who's hunting her and the Tucks for unsavory reasons of his own.

"Tuck Everlasting" comes from Walt Disney Pictures, which used to provide good family viewing as a matter of course, and still comes up with a winner like this from time to time.

The studio certainly hasn't stinted on the casting: In addition to Alexis Bledel as Winnie, there are William Hurt and Sissy Spacek as the Tuck elders, Amy Irving and Victor Garber as her own parents.

Best of all, Ben Kingsley as the menacing man in the yellow suit, brings the picture pungently to life every time he flashes his enigmatic smile. Jay Russell directed this engaging contribution to Hollywood's recent upsurge in family-friendly fare.

• 'White Oleander,' rated PG-13, contains vulgarity, violence, and other adult content. 'Tuck Everlasting,' rated PG, contains mild violence.

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