[Screen It]

(1999) (Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman) (PG-13)

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Drama: A somewhat eccentric woman packs up her small town belongings and her reluctant fourteen- year-old daughter and heads to Los Angeles hoping to make her dreams of a better life come true.
Life in Bay City, Wisconsin isn't good enough for Adele August (SUSAN SARANDON), so she packs up her belongings, as well as her reluctant fourteen-year-old daughter, Ann (NATALIE PORTMAN), and drives them across the country in their used, but recently acquired 1978 Mercedes.

Ann isn't at all happy about the trip or the move, can't stand being with her mother whose errant behavior is a constant source of embarrassment, and greatly misses her family back home including Aunt Carol (BONNIE BEDELIA) and especially her cousin Benny (SHAWN HATOSY).

After a long and fight-filled trip, the two arrive in Beverly Hills where the ever optimistic Adele hopes to make her dreams of a better life come true for herself and Ann. When they realize they can't afford to live the posh lifestyle, local realtor Gail Letterfine (CAROLINE AARON) helps them find a small apartment on the outskirts.

While Adele gets a job at a local school and flirts with men, such as orthodontist Josh Spritzer (HART BOCHNER), she'd want to marry for the luxurious lifestyle they could provide, Ann tries to deal with being the new kid at her school, and eventually makes friends with some other kids including Janice (HEATHER McCOMB) and Peter (CORBIN ALLRED), who has a major crush on her.

As time passes and they become more accustomed to their new surroundings, Ann tries to deal with her mother's unique view of the world and find a way to keep their symbiotic relationship from driving either or both of them crazy.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Already going through a multitude of changes in their bodies and lives while passing from childhood to young adulthood, most teens hate anything that make them look different and/or might embarrass them. While acne, braces and sudden changes in body proportions can certainly lead to self-consciousness, nothing is worse -- at least to the teen in question -- than their parents.

Although at one time they were a child's favorite people to be around, parental units suddenly become the epitome of a living and breathing nightmare for many teens. That's because whether they try to be cool and fit in with the kids or draw undue attention to themselves or to their offspring by still treating them like kids, calling them by their childhood nicknames or outwardly praising them for any number of accomplishments -- warranted or not -- the old man and woman suddenly become adolescent public relation fiascos.

Such is the case with Adele August, a walking parental nightmare brilliantly played by Susan Sarandon in the family drama, "Anywhere But Here." As directed by Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club," "Chinese Box") -- who works from three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter Alvin Sargent's (with wins for "Ordinary People" and "Julia") adaptation of Mona Simpson's novel of the same name -- Sarandon's character is a therapy session short of being eccentric and obviously follows the beat of her own distinct drummer.

Tired of life in her small, Midwestern town that she vows she won't die in, she packs up her bags and reluctant 14-year-old daughter into her newly acquired 1978 Mercedes. Then, following the advice she probably learned from the Clampett's kinfolk of where she ought to be, she loaded up her life and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is, swimming pools, movie stars.

Unlike Jed and the rest of the hillbillies who made that same trip, however, these small town folk don't have millions. Thus, when they hear the $1,000 plus per night room fee at the Beverly Hills Hotel, they realize they have to scale back. While the resulting one-bedroom apartment lifestyle is a far cry from what she expected and the repeated turning off of her power is inconvenient, it doesn't dim her dreams of the better life. Her sullen daughter, however, longs for the way things used to be, albeit with a more normal and responsible mother.

That's the basic premise of this picture that manages to overcome its slightly mundane and occasionally melodramatic plot simply due to the stellar performances from its two leading ladies. While the domestic squabbling-related proceedings may eventually get a little repetitive and/or tedious to some viewers, it's doubtful many will tire of watching these two fine actresses do their thing.

Creating a memorable and completely believable mother daughter pairing where the chemistry always feels right on, both Sarandon and up and coming young actress Natalie Portman may just find themselves rewarded come the end of the year "best of" lists and later award nominations.

Rarely has five-time Oscar nominee Susan Sarandon ("The Client," a win for "Dead Man Walking") been in better acting form. While she benefits greatly from a terrifically written and developed character, a lesser actress may have played the role incorrectly, making her either too exaggerated or tragic. Yet Sarandon embodies her with more than enough subtle nuances and fine qualities to make her not only completely credible, but also sympathetic to the viewer.

Easily holding her own against her more veteran co-star, Natalie Portman ("Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," "Everyone Says I Love You") similarly creates a believable character who easily connects with the audience that then effortlessly feels her disgust, longings and alternating happiness right along with her. I've been continually and completely impressed with her acting ever since witnessing her accomplished work in "The Professional" and "Beautiful Girls," and can only imagine that over the next several years, Portman will go on to become one of the more revered and sought after actresses working in the industry.

Supporting performances are sparse at best, with only Shawn Hatosy ("Outside Providence," "In & Out") getting a halfway decent and/or memorable role as Ann's small town cousin. The rest, including Bonnie Bedelia ("Die Hard," "Heart Like a Wheel") as Adele's sister and Caroline Aaron ("Primary Colors," "Working Girl") as her new realtor friend are limited at best, suggesting that more of their onscreen time may have ended up on the editing room floor.

Wang has shown that he may be one of the few male directors around who can get the essence of being a woman down pat (exhibited in 1993's "Joy Luck Club") and it's nice that he keeps things from getting too hysterical or over sentimentalized. Likewise, screenwriter Sargent knows a thing or too about making credible and moving family dramas and creates some memorable bits of dialogue that provide most of the film's few lighter moments.

Yet their story here often feels either too episodic and fragmented or like it's spinning its wheels, never really getting anywhere as it repeatedly covers the same ground. About midway through the film, events and characters start randomly coming and going, and just when you think that one or the other is significant, they're never revisited again. I suppose that's the difficulty of adapting a novel's far broader and timeless world into a two hour or so movie, but such problems prevent the film from being a completely stellar experience.

Nonetheless, the acting by Sarandon and Portman more than make up for most of them and easily allow the audience to connect with their characters. Not perfect, but enjoyable enough on its own terms, this film will probably enjoy many critical accolades and award nominations for its talented leading ladies and their flawless performances. We give "Anywhere But Here" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 4, 1999 / Posted November 12, 1999

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