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Where the Heart Is (2000)

DIRECTOR: Matt Williams

CAST: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, James Frain, Dylan Bruno, Keith David, Joan Cusack, Sally Field

REVIEW:

Based on the novel by Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is is as unabashed a “chick flick” as they come, but while at times a little too contrived and saccharine, it manages to be a pleasant and enjoyable “feel good” experience almost in spite of its own narrative contortions. Viewers of both genders should walk away with a smile on their face, even if they admit it grudgingly.

When we meet pregnant teen Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), she’s left her poor trailer home and hit the road with her loser boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) en route to California, where she imagines living in a house by the ocean. But Willy Jack has other ideas. No sooner has Novalee made a pit stop to run to the restroom at a Sequoia, Oklahoma Wal-Mart than she returns to find she’s stranded there. With nowhere to go, Novalee is forced to first secretly live in the Wal-Mart, then come to rely on the kindness of strangers, including perpetually pregnant nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), quirky townswoman Thelma “Sister” Husband (Stockard Channing), and awkward librarian Forney Hull (James Frain). As Sister imparts in one of her folksy nuggets of wisdom, “home is where the heart is…home is where they catch you when you fall”.

Viewers expecting a hard-hitting drama about a penniless pregnant teen abandoned and forced to resort to living in Wal-Mart should look elsewhere. Where the Heart Is occasionally touches on a darker note, but it doesn’t dwell on them. The tone is unabashedly “feel good” and life-affirming, and while it’s primarily dramatic in tone, there’s some light humor sprinkled around (most openly in Joan Cusack’s small role as an acerbic music producer). All of the townspeople are kind and helpful, and quirky in cutesy, folksy sorts of ways (Lexie names her various children after snack foods), right down to their names (it’s a movie with a baby named Americus Nation and a woman who calls herself Sister Husband, and Keith David plays a photographer named Moses Whitecotton). And since this is Sequoia, Oklahoma as depicted in a feel good Hollywood movie, Novalee and Lexie always have their hair and makeup done (the movie received some criticism for prettying up the lead female characters and neatly excising Lexie’s weight problems). The biggest problem is the episodic nature of the screenplay, which careens from one melodramatic situation to another. Novalee gets abandoned at Wal-Mart, where she is later forced to give birth during a thunderstorm (incidentally, the movie plugs Wal-Mart enough that one wonders if it funded the budget). Her baby gets kidnapped by a pair of creepy Bible-thumpers who look a little like the couple from American Gothic. There’s a tornado. Lexie, who goes through a revolving door of men, eventually meets one who, in by far the movie’s darkest plot point, sexually assaults one of her children and beats her bloody (offscreen). The periodic cutaways from the main Novalee plotline to follow her ex-boyfriend Willy Jack and his would-be singing career in Vegas, while eventually coming full circle, are a little more frequent than they needed to be.

The biggest thing stringing together the melodrama with a measure of sincerity are solid performances, especially from Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd, which keep things watchable and even enjoyable even when the narrative contortions threaten to get eye-rolly and the tone gets schmaltzy. While last year’s Star Wars Episode I might have blasted her exposure into the stratosphere, this comparatively low-key, down-to-earth part (freed from Queen Amidala’s endless revolving door of elaborate makeup and costuming) lets Natalie Portman show more acting ability. She’s the calm in the eye of the storm, the serene presence around which everyone and everything else revolves, and Portman tackles the part with sufficient conviction and sincerity for us to believe in Novalee as well. She gets strong backup from Ashley Judd, who likewise gives a serious, straightforward performance as a potentially silly character, and plays well off of Portman without overstepping her supporting role. Stockard Channing exudes folksy warmth as Sister, and while Portman always looks like she just stepped out of the makeup trailer, James Frain’s awkward Forney is at least an example of a love interest who doesn’t look like a model. These four principals imbue their parts with enough earnestness that they almost dare us to take it less seriously than they do, and for the most part, it’s enough to sell it. In smaller roles, Dylan Bruno is the closest we have to a negative character (not counting Lexie’s offscreen boyfriend) as the loser Willy Jack, Keith David rounds out the “folksy townsperson” contingent, Joan Cusack steals her handful of scenes as Willy Jack’s hard-nosed manager, and Sally Field makes a cameo as Novalee’s absentee mother.

How much pleasure one derives from Where the Heart Is depends on how much tolerance one has for unabashedly feel good chick flicks, and how much contrived drama one is willing to overlook in pursuit of its charms. Within that genre, Where the Heart Is certainly doesn’t do anything ground-breaking or particularly challenging or unpredictable, but it supplies what a movie like this sets out to: a little drama, a little humor, a little romance, appealing characters, and its target audience left feeling uplifted.

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