Hardship in fairyland

Where The Heart Is

You are hereby warned: this is a sentimental, melodramatic film about working-class women just trying to keep their lives afloat for themselves and their children. Based on an Oprah-recommended book by Billie Letts, it’s a meandering tear-jerker that is only watchable on the strength of its cast, not its script.

Seventeen-year old Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), is seven-months pregnant and she’s leaving her Tennessee trailer park home with her boyfriendWilly Jack (Dylan Bruno). They’re heading for California, where Novalee hopes to live somewhere with an outdoor patio set, where she can sit and drink chocolate milk and watch the sun go down.

But there’s a slight hiccup. They stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma so that Novalee can use the bathroom and when she reemerges, Willy has left her stranded. Novalee reacts in a daze, failing to demonstrate much spirit. She doesn’t cry, doesn’t get angry, and she doesn’t try calling any of her friends. She simply sits and waits for things to happen to her.

And they do. An oddball but warm-hearted woman Thelma "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing) mistakes her for someone else; a Wal-mart photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) recommends she give her baby a strong name (she chooses Americus). She happens to be in the bathroom when the Wal-Mart is closing, so she stays there, at a loss to do anything else. And she stays for six weeks, venturing out to go to the library, where she meets Forney Hull (a very wooden James Frain, who lets the cast down), the de facto librarian covering for his drunken sister.

Novalee goes into labor (it is, of course, a dark and stormy night) and is rescued by her knight in shining armour: Forney has been keeping an eye on her (which is pretty creepy, actually), and now he smashes through a plate glass window to get to her.

The film then turns highly epidodic and starts to flounder. Cut to the hospital, where Novalee wakes up to meet the chatty Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), who for some reason becomes her best friend. Novalee has become a celebrity, the mother of the Wal-Mart baby, and is offered a job with Wal-Mart "anywhere in the country!" Novalee’s mother (Sally Field) turns up briefly, after having abandoned her when she was five years old. This scene is representative of many in the film: there’s potential for a great scene with two fantastic actresses, but they’re given a paucity of material to work with by screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It’s almost embaressing to watch.

Novalee finds a home with Thelma, and audiences are then treated to the trials and tribulations of being a beautiful single mother in small-town America. Novalee’s ex-boyfriend turns into a country and western star (with the help of a brilliant Joan Cusack); fundamentalist Christians kidnap Americus; ; a tornado rips through town; Novalee decides to become a photographer so so there are various superfluous scenes of her gazing at black and white prints.

But the world of Novalee and Lexie is not convincing. Bad things happen, such as an attack on Lexie’s children and unwanted pregnancies (hasn’t anyone heard of abortion?), but it’s obvious that they’re happening on a movie set. By the time Novalee gets her patio set and chocolate milk, the schmalz is in full swing.

Natalie Portman and to a lesser extent Ashley Judd do their utmost to save the melodrama by injecting some great acting. And although their perfect looks, healthy figures and immaculate grooming are not at all representative of working class single American mums, their commitment to their roles is what prevents this film from being a watchable bad film – rather than just a bad film.

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