Where the Heart Is

(Matt Williams, USA, 2000)


Matt Williams’ Where the Heart Is (not to be confused with John Boorman’s wild 1990 film of the same title) is a tearjerking, ordinary-people melodrama in the vein of Steel Magnolias (1989) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Like those hit movies, it is about extended families, personal resilience and difficult loves – and it puts the accent firmly on women’s experience.


It starts with the barest touch of social satire. Young Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), heavily pregnant, is deserted by her no-good boyfriend, Willy (Dylan Bruno), in a car park. So she hides out every night for weeks in a supermarket, and is luckily discovered just as she is about to give birth. Instead of being incarcerated as a criminal, Novalee is hailed in the media as a folk hero, and set on her merry way.


However, love and pain and the whole damn thing are just beginning for Novalee. The tough times are eased by a string of caring friends, including the spiritually fanatical Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), worldly-wise Lexie (Ashley Judd) and a shy librarian, Forney (James Frain). Catastrophes are always signalled to Novalee by a dreaded sign: occurrences of the number five.


More attention has been given to the quirky character names (to top things off on that plane, Novalee calls her child Americus) than to just about anything else in this oddly cold, overly calculated movie. Naturally, all sentimental stories of this type are extravagantly contrived and emotionally manipulative; one expects no less. In Where the Heart Is, however, the themes are paper-thin, the plot seams show badly and our engagement with the characters never really happens. Only the uniformly excellent performances keep us watching.


Ron Howard’s usual scriptwriters, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, 1989), are veterans at crafting smooth entertainments that juggle many characters and parallel plots while deftly skimming over potentially tricky or painful issues. The lumpy structure of this piece (adapted from Billie Letts’ novel) defeats even their combined ingenuity.


Where the Heart Is is founded on the hoariest chick-flick cliché – that most men are base, selfish and rotten, except for the occasional sexless, ego-less, angelic type who will sacrifice everything for a good woman in a jam. To pound this theme home, the film sets up a double narrative trajectory vaguely reminiscent of the far superior Crazy in Alabama (1999). Alongside Novalee’s travails, we also follow the rather dull journey of Willy into a music career (his agent Ruth, played by Joan Cusack, at least provides some humourous respite). Matt Williams, a successful producer-writer veteran of TV comedy series including Roseanne and The Cosby Show, has directed only one subsequent feature, and it’s in a similar family-drama vein: Walker Payne (2006).


Where the Heart Is quickly becomes a sprawling chronicle of the often dramatic changes in every character’s life – with the worst traumas always kept discreetly off-screen. The filmmakers are forced into using numerous large-scale ellipses or narrative leaps, filled in by the usual ceremonies (birthdays, weddings, funerals) and clumsy verbal backtracking.


In theatre, we are used to vast gaps in time and space between successive acts. In a novel, it is an easy trick to write “five years later …”, followed by a summary evocation of what has been adroitly skipped. However, in cinema, strong and obvious ellipses of important plot action always register as veritable holes punched in the fabric of the fictional world. Modernist filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni turn such holes to their advantage; Where the Heart Is simply disappears through its own cracks.

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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