Thursday 6 July 2017

Movie Review: Where The Heart Is (2000)

A drama about life and love, Where The Heart Is finds most of the right notes in the story of an underprivileged young woman determined to carve a life for herself.

Seventeen years old, penniless and pregnant, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) is abandoned by her scummy boyfriend Willy Pickens (Dylan Bruno) at a Sequoyah, Oklahoma WalMart. The kindly Thelma Husband (Stockard Channing), a recovering alcoholic, extends a welcoming hand, but with nowhere to go Novalee surreptitiously starts to sleep at the WalMart by night while wandering around the community during the day. She meets store photographer Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) as well as town librarian Forney Hull (James Frain), an awkward young man whose college education was interrupted.

Novalee gives birth to a daughter she calls Americus, with Forney instrumental in the midnight delivery at the WalMart. While recovering at the hospital she meets nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), a vivacious unmarried mother of four who easily attracts all the wrong men. Meanwhile, Willy heads to Nashville in search of a music career and connects with talent agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack). After an unsavory encounter with her no-good mother Lil (Sally Field), Novalee moves in with Thelma to start assembling something that resembles a life, and there are plenty of ups and downs ahead in the pursuit of happiness.

An adaptation of the Billie Letts novel of the same name, written for the screen by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and directed by Matt Williams, Where The Heart Is establishes a methodical one-crisis-per-10-minutes pace and does not stray far from the formula. And yet the film executes its mandate with admirable proficiency, and wins its audience with a heartfelt and well-intentioned portrayal of the human spirit hard at work.

Films populated entirely by relatively poor people are few and far between, and there is no knight in shining armour or rich saviour of any kind in Where The Heart Is. Nor is this a class warfare story glamorizing the poor but morally upright masses. Rather, this is a tale of gaining inches in the marathon of life. Novalee starts with literally nothing and the deck stacked against her, and works her way to something through sheer force of will and an always positive disposition.

Along the way she meets women of the same ilk, Thelma and Lexie fighting their own battles (against various addictions and insufferable men respectively) but just as determined as Novalee to fight back on their own terms of kindness.

Williams energetically works the film through the obstacle course of abandonment, poverty, abuse, natural disasters and awkward relationships, sprinkling enough small wins and moments of love and laughter to ensure Novalee always has the motivation and glimmers of hope to carry on. The outcome is a film that despite its sentimentality capably mirrors life's ups and downs.

All of 18 at the time of filming, Natalie Portman holds the film together and convincingly portrays Novalee from 17 to 22, adding textures of experience as the character ages. Ashley Judd is equally irresistible as Lexie, smiling at a life that serves her up a succession of adorable children but also a series of less than useless sperm donors.

Where The Heart Is finds a place that is honest and comfortably familiar, rich soil to help a young woman grow.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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