Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 11/12/99

We last saw Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala in this summer's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. While she did an adequate job as the haughty teenage monarch, her acting talent was not allowed to fully manifest itself (my theory is that her face was so caked with makeup she couldn't move). But any doubts about 18-year-old Portman's ability evaporate in Anywhere But Here, a mother-daughter drama that pairs her with proven talent Susan Sarandon. Sarandon is good; Portman is astounding. These two women, in concert with the sensitive direction of Wayne Wang (Chinese Box) and Alvin Sargent's screenplay based on the novel by Mona Simpson, take a film which could easily be another soppy, manipulative effort like Stepmom and craft a truly moving and bittersweet story about the unseen bond between a middle-aged, divorced woman and her seemingly hateful teenage daughter.

Tired of a life that is going nowhere in the small town of Bay City, Wisconsin, Adele August (Sarandon) decides to pull up stakes, leave her husband, and move to the bright lights of Beverly Hills. Despite the fact that 14-year-old Ann (Portman) does not want to leave her cousin (Shawn Hatosy), her stepfather (Ray Baker), or anyone else in Bay City, she is forced to go along, mainly because Adele's dreams of fame and fortune rest primarily on the assumption that Ann will become a child star. Of course, Ann has no desire or intention to act, but in Adele's mind this is nothing but a minor obstacle to the plan.

Truthfully, the plot of this film is not extremely intricate. Adele and Ann suffer numerous setbacks, tempered by the occasional success; they have trouble paying the bills and fitting in among the rich and famous. Ann is forced to endure her mother's embarrassing lifestyle, and she openly wishes and plans to "escape." The story is told in part through voiceovers by Portman, explaining in detail the depth and breadth of her hatred for her insufferable control-freak mother. But we see that Adele really loves her daughter, and even though their tastes do not always mesh perfectly, there are times when the mutual love and respect show through. Like I said, not a terribly complex story line.

But the plot is really not the issue here; it is secondary to the complex range of emotions played out as we travel through the ever-changing relationship of mother and daughter. There is a lot of crying in this film, something that usually turns me off, but the feelings are so real that it isn't pushy or melodramatic. Director Wang is able to mine the considerable talent of his two leads and produce a story of astounding depth. On occasion there is a scene which seems intended only to produce waterworks, but mostly it is a subtle, sensitive treatise on the good and bad aspects of familial love, and on the pain and necessity of finally saying goodbye.

Natalie Portman is my new hero. It'll be interesing to see her in Star Wars: Episode II (2002), and find out if George Lucas can get her to put forth this calibre of performance, even through all that goop. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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