Multiple compressions strain `Heart'

April 28, 2000|By Phoebe Flowers | Phoebe Flowers,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

"Where the Heart Is" is everything that cynical moviegoers despise and the tender-minded adore.

Based on the Oprah-endorsed novel by Billie Letts, the story of a pregnant, penniless teen-ager's maturation in rural Oklahoma is a moist, overreaching valentine to the beauty and grace of small-town living.

Natalie Portman stars as Novalee Nation, an ecstatically beautiful but misguided 17-year-old in her seventh month of pregnancy. The baby's father, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), has dreams of rock star glory, so he packs the uncomplaining Novalee into an $80 car with holes in the floor and sets off from their Tennessee hometown toward a new, uncertain life in California.

On the way, Willy Jack gets scared, so he abandons Novalee in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

As it turns out, Novalee's story is just beginning -- and that's part of the problem. The movie, directed and produced by veteran television producer Matt Williams ("The Cosby Show," "Roseanne"), is a textbook case of what happens when Hollywood tries to compress a complex novel into a two-hour film.

So much happens in the opening half-hour that it's hard to focus intently enough on any one plot development.

And then Novalee's baby is born, and things get even more complicated. "Where the Heart Is" is often a graceful, stirring film, but it's also far too pat and contrived to make a significant impact.

The languid script, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel ("Parenthood," "EdTV"), feels like the framework of a genuine story. Much of the dialogue serves only to advance the plot as expediently as possible.

Portman, who made her mark as an adolescent in 1994's "The Professional" and more recently starred in "Anywhere But Here," deserves for the movie to be better. She is the soul of "Where the Heart Is," and she elevates the movie from the melodrama into which it often collapses.

The actress is 18 years old, and already she has the sort of presence that makes it impossible to imagine this flawed but passionate movie with any other lead.

`Where the Heart Is'

Starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, James Frain, Dylan Bruno, Keith David, Sally Field, Joan Cusack

Directed by Matt Williams

Rated PG-13 (vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes)

Released by 20th Century Fox release

Running time 115 minutes

Sun score **1/2

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