Where the Heart Is (2000)

Reviewed By Wacoshade
Posted 04/25/01 03:55:24

"Makes you feel all sweet and sticky. You'll either smile or hurl."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I liked Where the Heart Is. Maybe I liked it because my wife and I saw it for cheap at a buck theatre, maybe it’s because it was filmed near where I live here in Texas, or maybe because for all its sappiness and unlikely events, there’s something of an inane but adorable sweetness about the growth of the characters that I find appealing. The story is far-fetched and meanders to all kinds of extremes, but Natalie Portman, as well as Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing, touch your emotions in a way that almost feels more real than contrived. They key word being ‘almost.’ Depends on the kind of day you’re having.

Natalie Portman is Novalie Nation. She is a pregnant teenager who leaves Kentucky and heads to California with her redneck boyfriend, Willie Jack (Dylan Bruno), who has aspirations of becoming a music star. The boyfriend is selfish and an ignoramus (could there be any other type in a movie like this?), and he ditches her at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart when she goes to use the bathroom and buy a pair of cheap shoes (since her original shoes fell through a hole in the floorboard of Willie Jack’s car). Abandoned and pregnant, Novalie hides at night in the Wal-Mart, for almost TWO MONTHS, but she makes friends with a few seemingly odd people who profoundly affect her life and the choices she makes after her baby is born: Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) an eccentric middle-aged flower child of sorts who mistakes her for a friend’s child, Moses (Keith David in a small role) a portrait photographer at Wal-Mart who provides inspiration for Novalie’s motivations and creativity, Forney (James Fraim) an intellectual loner who takes care of the town library and obviously seems out of place in small town life – except when with Novalie and her daughter, and Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) a down-to-earth nurse with a lot of children named after snack foods (Brownie, Baby Ruth, and so on) and similar personality traits as Novalie.

I think one of the funniest moments comes shortly after Lexie, who is a nurse at the hosptial where Novalie was taken for a couple of days, explains her children’s names to Novalie, when an orderly comes by to tell her one of her kids is on the phone.

“Which one?”
“I don’t know. Pez? Twinkie? One of em.”

The movie spans a period of around six years, and we witness a sequence of strange and sometimes tragic events that shape Novalie’s life and point of view.

Yeah, it’s a chick flick, and it tries to get you bawling by pulling some of the same chick-flick-tricks that we’ve seen over the years: innocent cuteness that loses its innocence, catastrophic and costly disaster that hurts the characters, strained romance that has some issue to overcome, growing stronger or smarter in a bittersweet manner, tragic death of important characters, etc. etc. It’s as if they pick out all the important moments of Novalie’s life over these few years, good and bad, and then show that to us piecemeal, so there’s plenty of tidbits to chew on.

There are some serious “stretches” that would cause me to groan painfully or laugh condescendingly in most movies of this sort, such as when a massive tornado obliterates a good chunk of Seqouya, Oklahoma. Novalie flies through the air and hangs onto a storm cellar rail with one hand, actually catching her small daughter most heroically with the other hand as she nearly gets drawn up by the wind. The sheer unlikely nature of that moment could almost cause the rambling plot to crash down on unsuspecting passerbys like Sister Husband’s trailer. But, given the interest I had in Novalie and her daughter, I found myself more interested in how they would deal with the disaster, somewhat excusing the ludicrous scene in the storm cellar. And, there are all kinds of plot deviations making up this weird tapestry, such as the bizarre cameos by Sally Fields and Joan Cusack (who show up for all of about 5 minutes each), Novalie’s interest and natural talent at photography, a momentary kidnapping, even a short sequence dealing with abuse and molestation, and a rather dull subplot about Willie Jack’s wanna-be country music career. The plot is all over the place.

However, there are a few things that make this movie a little more interesting to me than I would have expected. One, Natalie Portman does a great acting job. I think she plays it a little too ditzy at the start of the movie, but I think she portrays her role well, and she manages to have a character that is not just a victim of her circumstances, buffeted around until some climactic moment. In a few cases, she even manages to show depth in Novalie by initiating important changes without being forced into it by her circumstances. She is not a flat character who only acts as result of the plot turns; she is an active participant in how the overall story changes. That is somewhat unusual for a typical chick flick, where the main characters usually only change at or about or as a result of the story’s climax. Here, we see a character grow consistently – even if somewhat predictably.

Two, the supporting performances, while mostly eccentric or bizarre, make an entertaining hodgepodge of gaudy characters that not only support the protagonist but reflect her growth through their own personalities and choices. Stockard Channing has a somewhat motherly role as Sister Husband, who immediately takes Novalie into her home after the baby is born without a question, judgement, or angle. She is honest, protective, and your typical “won’t take any crap” middle-aged country woman. James Fraim has a quiet but typical role, where not a lot is expected from him, but his character is the steady friend who exists only to perpetuate the eventual “love-interest” conflict that crops up in these stories. Keith David has a small but interesting role, and I thought the short scene where he meets Novalie in the Wal-Mart may be one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and the starting point for a lot of how Novalie tries to move beyond what a typical life for her could have turned out to be, which is what we can see with Lexie.

That’s where Ashley Judd comes in. Lexie is a little older (and not so much wiser) but becomes an immediate friend to Novalie, and she proves to have a lot of similar qualities in terms of how she was raised and the kind of men she is drawn to (usually selfish boors who fly the coop when the rabbit dies). She is whom Novalie could turn out to be if Novalie doesn’t grow. Lexie proves to be an interesting foil for Novalie, and you can see how they both develop by comparing how Novalie changes in relation to how Lexie perpetuates her lifestyle (until near the end when changes in Novalie inspire a conclusion for Lexie which in turn inspires Novalie and the ultra-ham climax) over the course of the movie. Judd is second only to Portman in making an impacting performace from her role.

Three, there are tons of nice little touches sprinkled throughout the movie, meant to probably take the edge of the bizarre melodrama, such as Novalie’s funny routine while living in the Wal-Mart, Novalie’s superstitious fear of the number 5, any moment when Lexie calls one of her children by name, Willie Jack’s brief glimpse of fame through a song inspired by the last words Novalie spoke to him, Novalie’s budding career and obvious talent as a part time photographer, Novalie keeping track of what she “owes” Wal-Mart for her stay and things she uses, the name Novalie chooses for her daughter, and even the resolution with regards to Lexie’s family.

And, then there’s the fact that my alma mater appears in the last few minutes of the movie. The movie was filmed in and around Austin, and that college at the end is not in Maine; it’s actually Baylor University right here in Waco, Texas. Seeing the school where I spent quite a few years on the big screen for just a few moments just satisfied me in some way. Okay, so I ramble and annoy you with a tiny bit of trivia that really only matters to me. Well, as Constipated Carl used to say, Tough Shit!

The practically gratuitous sweetness of the movie got to me, and I suppose that the talent of the actors managed to smooth over the bizarre kinks of the story in my eyes. It’s probably a good movie for a date or to rent, but don’t expect anything particularly earth-shatteringly brilliant.

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