By Steve Vivona
Fox, $29.95, Widescreen
Being married I'm often called upon to watch movies I wouldn't ordinarily choose myself (in fairness to my wife she does the same). Every so often I find a "chick flick" I can recommend and "Where the Heart is" fits the bill. Natalie Portman's star has been on the rise since her debut as a 12-year old hitman's apprentice in "The Professional." Since then she's hit the jackpot with the plum role of Queen Amidala in "Star Wars: Episode One" (a role she will reprise in Episodes Two and Three).
In "Where the Heart is" Portman plays Novalee Nation, a 16-year old pregnant girl from Oklahoma who sets out with her boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) to start a new life in California. During a pit stop at a local Wal-Mart Willy Jack gets a case of cold feet and abandons Novalee there with almost no money. As she sits outside she meets Thelma, a kindly stranger (Stockard Channing) who mistakes her for someone else and gives her a plant.
Novalee is locked in the Wal-Mart bathroom overnight and decides to take up residence there in the evenings. During the day she roams the small town she is stranded in and meets many of the locals, including Forney Hall (James Frain), a somewhat hard-edged young man who takes care of the local library for his alcoholic sister.
Novalee carves out a life for herself until she goes into labor one night at the Wal-Mart. Forney has figured out where she goes at night and comes to her aid in the nick of time and delivers her baby. The whole town wants to help Novalee and she moves in with Thelma and her boyfriend Mr. Sprock. She names her daughter Americus, because she wants her name to stand for something important.
As the years go by Novalee forges strong friendships with many of the locals including Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), a nurse who befriended her in the hospital and Moses Whitecotton (Keith David), a photographer at Wal-Mart who inspires her to take up the craft. All the while her friendship with Forney grows but Novalee has sworn off men and devotes all her energy to her daughter.
The film also follows Willy Jack who goes to Vegas to try and hit it big as a recording artist. He hooks up with Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), a bloodthirsty agent who gets his career jumpstarted. Eventually Willy's life takes a tragic turn that is a bit baffling given the tone of the film.
The film is meant as a star vehicle for Portman who has proven time and again shes got some serious acting chops and projects a wisdom beyond her years. It's odd to see this Long Island native playing a denizen of the trailer park set but she immerses herself in the character and pulls off a multi-layered and effective performance that is really moving in spots.
Cast members Judd and Channing provide Portman with ample support and each have the opportunity to strut their acting stuff. Its nice to see Judd in a film other than the sexy thrillers shes been consigned to lately. Even Sally Field shows up for an unforgettable one-scene cameo as Novalee's absentee mother.
Occasionally the film's tone changes abruptly and the amount of misfortune heaped on the cast seems a bit excessive at times, but "Where the Heart is" is a really a showcase for some talented actresses to sink their teeth into some meaty roles and they don't disappoint.
Foxs DVD presentation is very strong as usual. The transfer is very strong with vibrant colors and a sharp image. The image is letterboxed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that seems entirely appropriate. The dolby digital sound is effective. This isnt the kind of film you use to demonstrate your home theater, although the tornado scene is served well by the DVD soundtrack. Extras include a trailer, music video and a featurette.