20th Century Fox
This mother-daughter buddy film, based on the Mona Simpson novel, feels like a series of withdrawn comments -- it wants to say that parents are sometimes intolerable, indulgent slobs who wreak havoc on their kids' lives, but it stops short, instead painting a portrait of a wacky but lovable mom who ends up doing the right thing for her daughter. Because of that, and in spite of two terrific performances by the leads, Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, Anywhere But Here ultimately feels slight and dishonest.
Sarandon is Adele August, a frustrated midwestern mother and two-time loser at marriage who feels she must get her daughter Ann (Portman) out of Bay City, the small Wisconsin town where she has lived her entire life. Adele is a gum-cracking, flambouyant dresser (Hollywood-ese for bad mom) who spends money recklessly and often neglects essentials like paying the electricity bill (more Hollywood-ese for bad mom). Ann is a brooding, disaffected and highly intelligent teenager, caught between her personal ambition and the incessant needs of her mother.
Portman is sublime -- reserved, determined, sullen, beautiful, graceful, subtle, disgruntled -- complex and multidimensional. Her performance is grave, weighted and flawless. Sarandon gives it the old college try, pulling off some touching scenes, but in general, her character is less satisfying than Portman's. As written by Alvin Sargent (Julia, The Sterile Cuckoo), Adele fluctuates between wackiness and lovability, mania and depression, but her character never gels as the complex, deeply troubled woman we suspect she is.
Many shiny, sun-bleached California scenes, accented by a trippy Danny Elfman score, move the film and the characters along in a kind of PMS fog, and several are endearing. Anywhere But Here will jerk a few tears from any mother who has ever raised a teenage girl, but it won't tell you anything you don't already know.
See it for Portman's performance.