(director: Matt Williams; screenwriters: Lowell Ganz/Babaloo Mandel/from the novel by Billie Letts; cinematographer: Richard Greatrex; editor: Ian Crafford; cast: Natalie Portman (Novalee Nation), Stockard Channing (Sister Husband), Joan Cusack (agent), Sally Field (Novalee’s dysfunctional mother), Ashley Judd (maternity nurse, Lexie Coop), Dylan Bruno (Willie Jack Pickens), James Frain (Forney Hull), Keith David (Moses Whitecotton), Richard Jones (Mr. Sprock); Runtime: 115; 20th Century Fox; 2000)

“The film appears to be one big advertisement for the giant department store Wal-Mart and its trailer park clientele.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A shamelessly contrived melodrama built around a Wal-Mart setting. All the sitcom scenes just never click. It’s a film about a vulnerable, low-class, and stupid woman, but a woman who is good-hearted. She fights for survival against all the obstacles placed in her way and against her own stupidity in decision making. The result is a predictably boring film, whose heart lies where the schmaltz is. The film appears to be one big advertisement for the giant department store Wal-Mart and its trailer park clientele.

Natalie Portman is miscast in her white trash role, as I always had the sense she was too intelligent to be so dumb. She plays the poor, uneducated, Southern accented, superstitious, pregnant 17-year-old, Novalee Nation, who moves into an Oklahoma Wal-Mart when abandoned by her wannabe musician, handsome but repulsive boyfriend, Willie Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno). After leaving their trailer park home in Tennessee, he abandons her in the Wal-Mart parking lot before they reach their California destination. After sleeping in Wal-Mart for a few weeks in the sporting section with a sleeping bag on the artificial garden lawn, she has her baby daughter Americus in the store. Her baby is delivered by the eccentric, nice guy Forney (Frain), who hears her screams and breaks a store window to reach her. The man from the civilized state of Maine, who unselfishly stopped his college education and pursuit of a career to be a history teacher in order to return to the small town to take care of his alcoholic sister. She’s the small-town librarian in this Oklahoma wasteland who can’t do her job since she’s always incapacitated, and he saves her from going to a sanitarium by doing her job.

After the baby’s birth is celebrated in the media as “the Wal-Mart Baby,” and the mother receives mostly encouraging mail from across the country, Novalee’s sleazy mother (Sally Field) surprisingly appears after abandoning her 5 years ago (5 is Novalee’s unlucky number); mother soon absconds with the $500 Wal-Mart gave her daughter.

Stuck in this dire situation, good-hearted strangers give her comfort. There’s maternity nurse Lexie (Judd), for one. She’s an uneducated, loose-living, single parent, with a number of children (she names them after junk foods: Baby Ruth, Praline, and Brownie), who becomes her best girlfriend. There’s a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian, named Sister Husband (Channing), who takes her and the baby into her humble mobile home. She will become her surrogate-mother.

After 5 years Novalee becomes a photographer for Wal-Mart, and she soon fulfills her dream of living in a house without wheels under it. Willie Jack resurfaces in her life as a legless man, after he tried to become a country singer under the name Billy Shadow with his career being guided by a tough Nashville agent (Joan Cusack); but, Willie turns out to be a hard-luck loser, who because of his stupidity and bad nature continues to make the same mistakes he always had.

Novalee will almost blow her chance of real love, by thinking she’s not smart enough for Forney. She tells Lexie, “Forney’s different from us — he went to college.” But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a happy ending, as Novalee finally makes a smart decision and marries Forney.

This is a film that got itself stuck inside Wal-Mart and could never get out of aisle 5. Director Williams, he once directed the Roseanne TV show, uses the material adapted from Billie Letts’ best-selling novel to keep everything as dumb as he can.

Where the Heart Is Poster

REVIEWED ON 4/19/2001 GRADE: D      https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/