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Movie Review: 'Where the Heart Is'

'Where the Heart Is' follows the difficult trail of a mom too young

Friday, April 28, 2000

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The writers and director of "Where the Heart Is" cut their teeth on TV sitcoms -- but don't condemn the movie just yet.

'Where The Heart Is'

RATING: PG-13, for intense thematic material, language and sexual content.

STARRING: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing.

DIRECTOR: Matt Williams.

WEB SITE: www.wheretheheart

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars.


First-time feature director Matt Williams produced "Home Improvement" (good) and "Thunder Alley" (bad). He was the first of many producers to get booted from "Roseanne" (mixed bag). His shows all share a working-class setting and sensibility, and "Where the Heart Is" certainly qualifies as well.

Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, here adapting the novel by Billie Letts, met each other while working on "Happy Days," produced several undistinguished sitcoms and followed actor Ron Howard into movies. In addition to movies Howard's directed, their film writing credits include "A League of Their Own" (good), "Father's Day" (bad) and "EdTV" (indifferent).

"Where the Heart Is" pulls more in the direction of soap than sitcom, and bears some traces of a TV mindset chiefly in its episodic story line and some formulaic character idiosyncrasies. It's a redneck chick flick, to be sure, but its saving grace is an unusually strong cast of actresses -- Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing and Joan Cusack, with a cameo by Sally Field.

Another of its strengths is also a weakness. The events in this movie stretch over a period of five years, accounting for its desultory nature. This story takes its sweet old time, and viewers may start to get impatient.

But as the narrative unfolds, people live and people die. Some of them mature, others refuse to learn from their mistakes. We really get to know them; they seep into our bones. Not everyone will want to identify with these decidedly unglamorous, small-town southerners. But they have more in common with common folk than the characters in most movies.

Portman plays Novalee Nation, a pregnant 17-year-old from Tennessee who is traveling cross-country with her boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), a wannabe musician. They stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma so Novalee can go to the bathroom. When she returns, Willy Jack is long gone. With $5 and change to her name, she starts living surreptitiously at the Wal-Mart -- this one doesn't stay open 24 hours.

When the baby comes, Novalee's subterfuge is discovered, and she gets her 15 minutes of fame as mother of "the Wal-Mart baby." She also starts becoming a member of the community, living with the oddly named Sister Husband (Channing) and gaining a best friend in Lexie Coop (Judd), who has so many children she doesn't know what to do. James Frain plays Forney, the slightly odd town librarian with a ghost literally rattling around in his attic.

The performers keep their characters from completely wallowing in their eccentricities. In the end, the movie celebrates the way families evolve -- those consisting of relatives and those we choose for ourselves -- and the ability of the characters to persevere in the face of adversity and tragedy, cruelty and their own insecurities.

It does not become clear until the end why the movie insists on following the misadventures of Willy Jack. He returns to Nashville and hooks up with a heavy-handed agent (Cusack) in his attempt to become a country-music star. In the end, the movie uses him as coldly as he treated Novalee -- it's an awfully long way to go to resolve the snag preventing the happy ending we all know is coming.

But in this movie, the destination is not as important as the journey. And while the ride can be bumpy, it also brings some modest rewards.

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