Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:00 - Released 4/28/00

Where The Heart Is provides yet another showcase for the considerable acting talent of 18-year-old Israeli-born Natalie Portman, who burst out of anonymity last year as Princess Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and then followed it up with an excellent performance opposite Susan Sarandon in Anywhere But Here. Portman, who entered Harvard in the fall of '99, has stated that she will not act during college except for the upcoming Star Wars films, and, in fact, doesn't know if she wants to pursue acting as a career at all. After Star Wars II, she probably won't need to.

Penned by the successful writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, whose combined credits include Edtv, City Slickers, and Parenthood, and directed by TV producer Matt Williams (Roseanne, Home Improvement), Where The Heart Is is a quirky story based on the novel by Billie Letts about a small-town girl forced to examine her life after she is dumped at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart by her deadbeat boyfriend. With no cash, no shoes, a baby very much on the way, and a phobia about the number 5, Novalee Nation is about as down on her luck as one can be. But she soon makes Wal-Mart her temporary home, hiding out when the store closes and sleeping there for several weeks. During this time she meets a few of the locals: Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), who acts as the town's "Welcome Woman," is a devout sinner, a recovering alcoholic, and a true friend. Forney Hall (James Frain) is a librarian who had to quit his higher education because of a mysterious woman living upstairs from his book collection. And Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) is a single mother of four children, all with different fathers, all named after snack foods: "Brownie, Praline, Cherry, and Baby Ruth."

With the love and support of her new friends, Novalee has her baby, a daughter she names Americus, and overcomes her dubious national fame as the "Wal-Mart mom." While witnessing the growth of Novalee and Americus, we also follow (to a lesser degree) the story of Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno), the aforementioned deadbeat, who, after leaving Novalee to her fate, spent a short time in prison and went on to Las Vegas intending to become a star. His eventual reappearance brings Novalee to a realization that will change her life.

This story is a strange mix of the extremely real and the utterly bizarre. The author's penchant for colorful names aside, there are a number of loops and turns in the story that come as a complete surprise, which, in a way, is much like life. Except in this story, the bad things usually have something to do with the number 5. It is a character-driven story, relying not so much on events as the interaction of its people. There are a few surprise appearances, like Sally Field as Novalee's mother and Joan Cusack as Willy Jack's agent, Ruth Meyers, one of the few characters without an unusual name. Portman gives a deep and heartfelt performance as Novalee, and her growth as a character is evident with each new, life-changing episode lurking around the corner. The performances of her supporting cast members are rather spotty, but it may not be wholly their fault; Williams's direction demands different things from different characters. The result is a confusing, uneven tone, in turns down-to-earth, emotional, silly, or totally off the wall.

This film is funny, crazy, and at times almost incoherent; it's not perfect, but as a vehicle for Portman, it's certainly worth a look. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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