Where the Heart Is (PG-13)
20th Century Fox
A few years back, I discovered Billie Letts' charming novel, Where the Heart Is, on a paperback close-out table on sale for 25 cents. In need of a quick, easy read, I went home and consumed it in one night. I found it full of funny and disarming surprises at every turn -- most especially in the deadpan presentation of eccentric characters.
The filmmakers tried to preserve that tight, deadpan feel of the book, especially in the casting of Natalie Portman in the role of Novalee Nation, a barefoot, pregnant, 17-year-old girl from Tennessee who gets dumped by her boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) outside an Oklahoma Wal-Mart where she takes up residence and, eventually, gives birth to a daughter, Americus.
Director Matt Williams, whose experience to now has been exclusively in television sit-coms, most notably Rosanne, has a solid handle on the rough-hewn, working class sensibility of white middle America, but shows here he knows far less about structuring a movie whose story spans almost six years.
Mistake number one -- a screenplay by masters of cheap comedy, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Neither of these guys would know a good novel if it slapped them upside the head, and here they treat Letts' book like a serial sit-com, lining up all the funny tales in a row, in chronological order, making us feel upon leaving the theater that we've been there six years. Ganz and Mandel further chose to break up Novalee's story by breaking away to the story of Willy Jack and his rise to country music stardom, a departure that merely interrupts the flow of what's good in the movie -- namely, the cast of Oklahoma characters who adopt Novalee and Americus.
Stockard Channing is marvelously spaced-out and eccentric as Sister Husband, a mother hen--mother earth type who takes in Novalee as easily as one might bring in the wash. Ashley Judd is solid as Lexie Coop, a local woman with a brood of babies named after snack foods, who can't seem to find or keep a decent man.
Portman plays Novalee well but, ultimately, is miscast. Her inate coolness and sophistication make it impossible to believe her as a free-spirited, dirt poor savant who has managed to survive in spite of a compete lack of worldliness.
Where the Heart Is will draw a huge crowd of Oprah Book Club readers, but they should think twice before making this a mother-daughter movie outing if their daughters are younger than, say, 12 years old. They'd do well to remember the story contains domestic violence, including a sexual assault on a child, and plenty of other adult subject matter, in-between the female bonding scenes.