[Screen It]

(2000) (Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd) (PG-13)

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Drama: Over a span of several years, a poor teenager tries to find happiness and love in the small town where she gave birth to her fatherless daughter in the local Wal-Mart.
Novalee Nation (NATALIE PORTMAN) is a pregnant seventeen-year-old girl who's leaving Tennessee with her white trash musician of a boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens (DYLAN BRUNO), en route to California. Stopping at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart for a bathroom break, Novalee then returns to the parking lot only to find that Willy Jack has abandoned her there.

Broke, increasingly pregnant and with nowhere to go, Novalee covertly spends the nights at the Wal-Mart. During the days, she meets Sister Husband (STOCKARD CHANNING), a recovering alcoholic who mistakes her for someone else and asks daily forgiveness for fornicating with her boyfriend, Mr. Sprock (RICHARD JONES). She also meets Moses Whitecotten (KEITH DAVID), a local photographer, as well as Forney Hull (JAMES FRAIN), a young man who dropped out of college to care for his alcoholic sister, Mary Elizabeth (MARGARET ANN HOARD), and run the local library.

Six weeks later, Novalee eventually gives birth to a daughter she names Americus, and soon meets hospital nurse Lexie Coop (ASHLEY JUDD), a woman who's no stranger to being a single mother herself. After Novalee's mother (SALLY FIELD) takes off with the money she received from Wal-Mart and others, the young mother moves in with Sister Husband, gets a job at Wal-Mart and starts to rebuild her life.

As Willy Jack pursues a singer/songwriter career with musical agent Ruth Meyers (JOAN CUSACK), Novalee must contend with the various hardships, joy and even love that life throws her way.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Giving a film a title is a big deal for filmmakers and the studios financing their efforts. Usually paying heed to the genre in which the film falls, those naming their latest "baby" obviously hope to lure in audiences via that descriptive moniker. In the best of worlds, it will do so via an interesting choice of words that give a hint and/or impression about the film's theme or general story.

Of course, when films are adapted from novels, the filmmakers don't always have to use the given title. However, if the work is familiar to the general public - or at least to those who bought it in literary form - it's usually a good idea to stick with the familiar title. Thus, "Angela's Ashes" kept its well-known title while Roderick Thorp's "Nothing Lasts Forever" eventually become the better known "Die Hard."

While the title of Billie Letts' 1995 novel, "Where the Heart Is," may have been the appropriate description for its basic story, a more appropriate label for its big screen adaptation would have been "Where the Melodrama Is."

That's because in the two hours or so of this wannabe weeper, the melodramatic moments simply don't stop. If you think I'm exaggerating, the following occurs (listed in no particular order of significance): two people die, one losses his legs, and a white trash jerk leaves his pregnant teen girlfriend at the Wal-Mart where she eventually gives birth. Then there's the tornado - straight out of "Twister" -- that destroys that establishment and other parts of the town, a man who molests some kids and beats his girlfriend, several people who are alcoholics, a girl's estranged mother who steals money from her, a guy who's wrongly thrown into jail (although he's certainly not an honorable character) and an infant that's kidnapped by some religious zealots.

With so much sentimental syrup being poured over and thus drowning the proceedings, and considering that the story is set in Oklahoma, I kept waiting for the soap opera, um, motion picture performers to move to a farm so that we could add a ruinous drought, the noisy locust swarm, the sudden bank foreclosure, an accidental encounter with a thrasher and/or a rapid dog named Yeller just to liven things up a bit, or at least add a bit more "drama" to the proceedings.

Now, I suppose it's possible that Letts' original novel may have had more credibility and depth to it, or that some/many of its fans or newbies to the story may just fall prey to the blatant melodrama here and lap it up like a crazed feline who's suddenly found a bowl of liquefied catnip.

For the rest of us, however, the thick and superficial way in which the story is told, unfolds and spills out onto the audience is likely to induce the gag reflex, some exasperated "Oh, c'mon already" sighs and/or plenty of circular movement in one's ocular region.

That's not to say that somewhere at the heart of this film there isn't something of an interesting story, for there is in the whole notion of a pregnant teen finally find home and family in the company of strangers. And the film does have a bit of a cutesy and near charming feel to it at times, particularly related to the characters names, including a set of kids inexplicably named after various snack foods.

Yet, for what little any of that brings to the film, neither director Matt Williams (who makes his film debut after creating and/or writing for TV shows such as "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show") nor screenwriters Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel ("EdTV," "City Slickers") who've done the family theme thing before in films such as "Parenthood," deliver anything that feels truly genuine or void of an overabundance of cloying sentimentality. The latter's script also suffers from an incredibly episodic nature where individual scenes are merely, but loosely strung together so as to allow for ever more melodramatic moments to occur.

What the film does have going for it is the fabulous Natalie Portman. Nearly unrecognizable under the tons of makeup and costume garb and certainly underused in the latest "Star Wars" film, Portman has otherwise delivered one impressive performance after another, ranging from her debut in "The Professional" and follow-up in "Beautiful Girls," to 1999's "Anywhere But Here" (that should have earned her an Oscar nomination).

While she's arguably the best young actress working today, clearly seems destined for stardom, and she does a credible job here portraying the age progression from being a pregnant teen to a more confident and adult young woman, she doesn't quite manage to imbue her with enough soul and/or depth to make her completely believable (although you do appropriately feel sorry for her).

Part of that fault lies with the less than stellar characterization and related development - or lack thereof - the script offers her. The same constraints hold true for Ashley Judd ("Double Jeopardy," "Eye of the Beholder") who, while playing an entertaining and perhaps true to life such character, never really develops beyond her one-note construction.

Supporting performances are generally okay, with Stockard Channing ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Grease") playing Novalee's surrogate mother, James Frain ("Reindeer Games," "Hilary and Jackie") doing the understated thing as her would-be suitor (except in the very first scene where we meet him and he appears to be under the influence of some sort of "upper" - but isn't), and Dylan Bruno ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Rage: Carrie 2") believably playing the white trash creep who abandons his pregnant, teenage girlfriend.

That said, the film does focus far too much time and attention on his character in those post-Wal-Mart abandonment moments. While the novel may have made such cutaways more congruous with the overall proceedings, here they feel like nothing more than a constant and awkward reminder that his and Portman's characters will predictably meet up again sometime before the end credits roll. As such, all of the scenes following him and then Joan Cusack ("High Fidelity," "In & Out") - who's completely wasted in the film - never amount to much of anything.

Beyond being a great big commercial/plug for Wal-Mart (showing that the chain not only has the material goods to sustain a pregnant teen for weeks on end, but also is a great place for a marriage), the film doesn't offer much more than a case study of the ills of being subjected to too much melodrama.

Although the film's plot presumably worked better in its original novel form, the filmed adaptation simply doesn't work that well as its predictable, episodic and melodramatic nature constantly undermines the story that's trying to be told. As such, "Where the Heart Is" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 22, 2000 / Posted April 28, 2000

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