Where the Heart Is

Where the Heart Is (12)

WHEN poor white trash teenager Novalee Nation is dumped, pregnant and destitute, in the car park of a giant American Wal-Mart store, by her no-good boyfriend, she doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet.

She wanders the store, hides when it shuts, and lives, rent-free and warmly, inside during the night, munching on snacks but keeping a careful note of “What I owe Wal-Mart”.

Inevitably discovered when she gives birth to a bouncing baby girl, she becomes a cause celebre as the mother of “the Wal-Mart baby”, landing a $500 gift from the president of Wal-Mart himself and prompting a visit from her long-lost mother, who disappears with the cash.

Abandoned once again, Novalee is adopted by a warm-hearted middle-aged woman, Sister (Stockard Channing), her best pal is a forever-pregnant young mum, Lexie (Ashley Judd)  and, seeking an education, comes across a painfully shy young man who runs the local library while caring for his invalid sister.

The rest of her story is All-American apple pie happiness tempered with the occasional touch of heartbreak, pushing the message that anything in America is possible if you have a good heart.

Where the Heart Is marks the first star vehicle for teenage sensation Natalie Portman, discovered at the age of 12 in Luc Besson’s Leon, six years ago, and rapidly becoming one of the States’ finest young actresses.

She dominates this tale of family and identity, shining out from a cast which includes the always-excellent Channing, James Frain as the scholarly Forney, Keith David as kindly uncle figure, Moses Whitecotten, and Sally Field, delivering a cameo as Novalee’s mother.

At its most basic, Where the Heart Is is a modern-day fairytale, which celebrates good neighbourliness, love, dedication and the yearning for a good life.

It splits the people of America into definite types – those who live life and love it, giving of themselves to those less fortunate, and those who offer nothing except lies, deceit, betrayal and dishonesty.

It places good within good, and bad alongside bad, pitching Nova Lee’s lecherous, no-good lover, Willie Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) against a seedy music agent (Joan Cusack in tigress mode), ramming home the message that scumbags attract other scumbags like iron filings fly to a magnet.

The message is further heightened by director Matt Williams and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who show that, no matter what they do, fundamentally bad people will never make the most of their breaks and, therefore, do not deserve them.

Where the Heart Is is the story of The American Dream: a good woman, a good man, a loving relationship and a house with a white picket fence to provide a home for the lot.

In many ways it should be impossible to swallow as a concept, but the adroit playing of the cast, particularly Portman (here grasping the acting possibilities she was denied in The Phantom Menace) means this is not just believable, but acceptable.

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