A cloying and skin-deep soap opera, "Where the Heart Is" is an epic of unwed motherhood that is almost stunning in its sustained superficiality. This Fox release is also notable for featuring the first disappointing performance by teen star Natalie Portman.

A cloying and skin-deep soap opera, “Where the Heart Is” is an epic of unwed motherhood that is almost stunning in its sustained superficiality. Banal and trite where it could have been insightful and emotionally truthful, this Fox release is also notable for featuring the first disappointing performance by teen star Natalie Portman, who seems far too refined, poised and unbruised by experience to convince as a redneck orphan who begins adult life by giving birth to a baby in a WalMart. All the same, first-time feature director Matt Williams, the creator and exec producer of “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement,” has a time-tested manner of treating working-class material in a way that mass audiences respond to, so the possibility of the heavily femme-slanted picture becoming a solid-to-strong earner in the heartland is not at all far-fetched.

Adaptation by longtime screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel of Billie Letts’ 1996 bestseller feels like an episodic serio-sitcom, with heavy life experiences mostly played for cheap laughs and doused in a high-fat sauce of equally unearned poignancy and sentiment.

With a ponderous sense of merriment, narrative skips across a torrent of profound incidents — birth, death, loss, crippling injury and plenty of self-searching and discovery — as if hopping on rocks across a river, with the characters never evincing a sense of inner life beneath the wisecracks and often misguided behavior. All the same, there’s more than enough going on here to ensure that “Where the Heart Is” never becomes boring, even if it’s far from convincing.

Musing that “I’ve never lived anyplace that didn’t have wheels under it,” pregnant 17-year-old Novalee Nation (Portman) takes off from Tennessee headed west with her good-looking, musician-wannabe boyfriend, Willie Jack (Dylan Bruno), who dumps her in Oklahoma during a WalMart pee stop. With no options, money or friends, Novalee takes up surreptitious residence in the enormous store until, one rainy night, she gives birth there.

Being “the mother of the WalMart baby” gives Novalee a certain renown among tabloid readers and daytime TV watchers, enough to gain her a nice hospital room and a quick visit from her long-lost mother (a showy Sally Field), who makes off with Novalee’s newly acquired cash.

But where biology fails, surrogate-mother friends come through. An eccentric and endlessly solicitous woman named Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) gives the teen and her baby girl a roof over their heads, while the lovely and spunky Lexie (Ashley Judd), who’s as flush with children (four) as she is unlucky with men (zero), becomes Novalee’s great pal and adviser.Although Novalee hardly seems ready for it, potential romance enters the picture in the form of shy librarian Forney (James Frain). But as the attraction simmers on the back burner, pic’s attention swings back to Willie Jack, who is reborn, under the tutelage of seen-it-all Nashville agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), as country singer Billy Shadow.

The fitful doses of melodrama accumulate apace through the later reels, as a couple of characters die, Novalee’s true feelings for Forney are put on the spot, and Novalee and Willie Jack have their inevitable, if ironic, reunion. Along the way, Novalee has developed a talent for photography under the gentle guidance of a local lensman (Keith David). Ending has a pat tie-it-all-up-in-a-shiny-happy-package feel that defines the picture’s glad-handing, surface approach.

Story’s foundation in such elemental matters as starting from scratch, overcoming formidable adversity and forming new family groups when blood kin fall short creates automatic sympathy and interest, and the three principal female characters are so generous and likable that it’s hard not to get behind them.

Channing’s offhandedly ribald and eccentric mother hen reps a perfectly entertaining character turn, but there are problems in the presentation of the younger women. Despite a respectable technical performance, Portman is simply incapable of convincing that she’s lived a raw, deprived, precociously carnal teenage existence. It’s like trying to believe Audrey Hepburn playing Baby Doll.

And no matter how appealing Judd is, Lexie is written on a one-note level that even she can’t redeem. Despite her ever-growing brood, Lexie maintains a flippant, broadly winking attitude toward sex and men, as if experience hasn’t taught her a thing. Except for one confessional spiel, Lexie is given no serious moments to reflect on the rigors of fatherless child rearing.

Bruno charges winningly through the role of the reckless Willy Jack, while Frain’s Forney has a bashful appeal. Craft contributions are pro but unremarkable.

Where the Heart Is

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Wind Dancer production. Produced by Susan Cartsonis, David McFadzean, Patricia Whitcher, Matt Williams. Executive producers, Carmen Finestra, Rick Leed. Co-producers, Gerrit Folsom, Dianne Minter Lewis. Directed by Matt Williams. Screenplay, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, based on the novel by Billie Letts.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Richard Greatrex; editor, Ian Crafford; music, Mason Daring; music supervisor, Lisa Brown; production designer, Paul Peters; art director, John Frick; set designer, Janet Stokes; set decorator, Amy Wells; costume designer, Melinda Eshelman; sound (Dolby), Hank Garfield; associate producer, Roz Weisberg; assistant director/second unit director, Matt Earl Beesley; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, L.A., April 6, 2000. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Novalee Nation - Natalie Portman
Lexie Coop - Ashley Judd
Sister Husband - Stockard Channing
Ruth Meyers - Joan Cusack
Forney Hall - James Frain
Willy Jack Pickens - Dylan Bruno
Moses Whitecotten - Keith David
Mama Lil - Sally Field
Mr. Sprock - Richard Jones

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