A mama's California dreaming

Review: In `Anywhere But Here,' a mother (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Natalie Portman) teeter along in an untidy pursuit of a happy ending.

November 12, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's possible to see a torch being passed in "Anywhere But Here," a small coming-of-age drama in which Natalie Portman, the shy, lissome center of the movie, effectively steals the show from Susan Sarandon. Portman is too good an actress to make a show of this; her power lies in her ability to draw attention by doing what looks like nothing at all. And Sarandon is generous enough to cede her ground graciously.

"Anywhere But Here" is a pretty good movie, but it's a great example of class in action.

Sarandon plays Adele August, a middle-aged speech therapist who one day buys a gold Mercedes and lights out from her hometown of Bay City, Wis., to Los Angeles, taking her teen-age daughter Ann (Portman) with her. Adele is agog with dreams of fame and fortune, and since her plum years have passed, she's convinced that Ann should become an actress. (She even suggests that her daughter change her name to Heather.)

Ann, who hides her doe-eyed beauty under a baseball cap and stares glumly out the car window, wants only to return to Bay City and Benny (Shawn Hatosy), her cousin and best friend. Once in L.A., Adele immediately rolls into the Beverly Hills Hotel, whose pink deco luxuriousness is what she's been dreaming about all these years. Upon hearing the tariff for a suite, she shows no signs of panic, she just inquires into the availability of bungalows. No vacancies, she is told, so with face saved, she and Ann repair immediately to the nearest TraveLodge.

Director Wayne Wang handles these shifts with delicacy and feeling, never exploiting them for pure comedy but never losing sight of the humor, either. Gently following Ann and Adele as they negotiate the outskirts of Beverly Hills, he gives them the distance they need to mess up and still retain their dignity.

Despite her reservations, Ann makes friends at school and begins plotting her escape to a college in the East (the Ivy League is her Hollywood). Adele, meanwhile, teeters between delusion and optimism as she searches for the romance she knows is around the corner. "He's much more than a dentist," she says after meeting a guy on the beach. "He's writing a screenplay."

It's no surprise when Adele gets her hopes dashed, but in a refreshing turn, she doesn't drown her woes in anything stronger than ice cream.

Based on the Mona Simpson novel, "Anywhere But Here" is a quietly resonant movie about the painful alliance between single mothers and their daughters, and the complicated drama of separation. Where it might have focused on Adele's wacky schemes (like last year's similarly themed "Slums of Beverly Hills"), the film instead regards with compassion two women who are trying to negotiate the rocky emotional terrain between them.

Wang is to be commended for his discretion, but the lion's share of credit here goes to Sarandon -- who gracefully takes on what has become the Lesley Ann Warren role of the idealistic, slightly hard-bitten beauty -- and Portman.

It's difficult to characterize Portman's performance other than to say that it's more of a presence, one that is ever-watchful, hypnotic and deceivingly potent.

`Anywhere But Here'

Starring Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon

Directed by Wayne Wang

Rated PG-13 (sex-related material)

Running time 110 minutes

Released by Fox 2000

Sun score: ***

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