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'WHERE THE HEART IS'

A real woman is hard to find

by Kaori Shoji

The problem with “women’s movies” is this: Too often, they make you think that the world out there belongs to men. Otherwise, how could they keep painting the same old pictures of women struggling to gain self-respect, raise children, find true love, bond witheach other, etc.? In the real world, women may ride the space shuttle, but in the movies, they’re still fighting the time-honored battles for love and security. Battles that will, according to Hollywood, end in a big, romantic wedding. “Where the Heart Is” is that type of “women’s movie,” which probably accounts for the discomfort (and certain level of depression) of sitting through it.

Natalie Portman in “Where the Heart Is”

“Where the Heart Is” is directed by Matt Williams and stars some of the most talented women in the industry: Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing. They are however, stuck in the well-worn modes of loving, caring, self-exploring soulfulness and . . . well, as my friend Tammy always says, “Hello? This is the 21st century, OK?”

I mean, take “Cast Away,” which opened at about the same time as “Where the Heart Is.” In it, Tom Hanks spends four years on a desert island with a volleyball to keep him company just so the story can address heavy issues like the downside of globalization and IT dictatorship (about time, too). Women in cinema don’t get to do these things because they’re too busy in their quest for THE RING and THE BABY and . . . you get the point.

“Where the Heart Is” opens with a very young couple, Novalee Nation (Portman) and Willie Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno), leaving their trailer home in Tennessee for greener pastures in California. Novalee is 17 and heavily pregnant, Willie Jack has delusions of being the Lucky Strike dude. Apart from their names, there’s nothing very interesting about Novalee or her boyfriend, until he dumps her at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma.

Novalee, however, demonstrates some feistiness by secretly living in the Wal-Mart (sleeping on the camping equipment, eating out of the fridge), then having the baby in one of the aisles. This gains her brief notoriety, courtesy of the local networks, plus $500 in cash from the Wal-Mart president. She also makes friends with Lexie (Judd), a hospital nurse who sees her though the aftermath of delivery. Lexie has a history of falling for the wrong guy, winding up pregnant and subsequently naming her fatherless kids after snacks, like “Brownie” and “Praline.” But full of hope and hormones, she doesn’t stop the chase for love until she’s found The One Man who will make her happy.

Another good friend is “Sister” (Channing), a reformed alcoholic who divides her time between her beau and good works for the community. She takes in Novalee and the baby and supports them through difficult times, while baking, cooking and being the generous goddess that she is. Soon Novalee decides to take up professional photography and begins the ascent up the ladder of self-esteem. Predictably, a worthy guy like the local librarian (James Frain) comes around, his heart full of love and respect. Novalee, who had never known such things, finds it all in the little town where her boyfriend ditched her.

Speaking of which, Willie Jack’s fate is a lot more severe than he deserves. A term in prison, followed by a long, hard stint in the music business under merciless agent Ruth Meyers (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) bring nothing but loneliness. The story rubs in his misery with a telling scene in which he and Novalee (without realizing it) stay in the same hotel, he as the two-bit lounge act and she as the award-winning photographer invited to a reception. The more Novalee finds strength and happiness, the lower he falls, to a point that smacks of Vengeance Gone Too Far. If Williams had counted on his female audience to call out “Right on!” and cheer at Willie Jack’s misfortunes, then he is seriously (and rudely) underestimating them.

On the other hand, you may enjoy the brief but effective appearance of Sally Field as Novalee’s long-lost mother. Having abandoned her daughter when the little girl was 5, Mom reappears to visit her in the maternity ward. Wearing the most outrageous threads (top button of her pants undone) and caked with makeup, Mom promises that she is going to take charge from now on. Novalee is won over and hands her the $500 from Wal-Mart. The camera lingers on Mom’s face, which shows, plain as day, that even though she hates to do this to her only daughter, she will grab the money and drive straight out of town. Mom is the only bad woman in this movie, but she’s also the most real.