Where the Heart Is

Directed by Matt Williams
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, James Frain, Stockard Channing, Dylan Bruno, Joan Cusack, Keith David, Sally Field.
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Review by Matt Heffernan
April 28, 2000

Just so you're not confused, this isn't a review for the recent Paul Newman movie Where the Money Is. This near conflict of titles isn't too bad, because Where the Heart Is is based on a popular novel by Billie Letts, and is directed primarily at women. It seems that the other film wasn't properly directed at anybody, and has failed at the box office. This film is much better, and has a very good chance of success.

A very pregnant Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) is leaving Tenessee with her boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno), for the promise of a better life together in California. They stop at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma so that Novalee can use the bathroom and buy some shoes (to replace the pair that fell through the gaping hole in the floor of Willy's cheap car). When she returns to the parking lot, Willy is gone, and she heads back inside the store.

She spends her nights in the Wal-Mart, and her days going about town. One night, she delivers her baby -- with the help of Forney Hull (James Frain), the local librarian who breaks into the store. She becomes a celebrity overnight, but the only place she has to go is the trailer home of "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing). She makes friends with fellow single mom Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) and starts a new life for herself.

This new life is the chief concern of Where the Heart Is: a lovely slice-of-life comedic drama. There isn't much of a plot, just a series of events over several years that show these various characters develop. Portman has to act as the innocent bystander through many troubling situations, and her performance makes the character very accessible and sympathetic. It's simply impossible to dislike her.

The real showcase performances belong to Channing and Judd. Sister is very pious and good-natured, lending support to the young mother while stressing the importance of prayer (especially for forgiveness of fornication with her boyfriend, Richard Jones). Lexie goes through more than anybody else. Her story is so compelling, and Judd's performance so good, that the film would have been much better if she was the focus. Of course, fans of the book would not like such a dramatic change, so the film is kept from realizing its potential.

Overall, Where the Heart Is is an engaging and entertaining film, despite a little overlength (and the misguided focus of the narrative). It's the kind of film that really appeals to women, and should do quite well. The guys will just have to watch German submarines and Roman gladiators in the mean time.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Where the Heart Is (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Where the Heart Is (2000) -- VHS
Where the Heart Is (2000) -- DVD
Where the Heart Is, a novel by Billie Letts -- Hardcover
Where the Heart Is, a novel by Billie Letts -- Paperback
Where the Heart Is, a novel by Billie Letts -- Audio Cassette (read by Susie Breck)
Where the Heart Is: Original Soundtrack -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan