Centering on the turbulent but loving relationship between a single mother and her rebellious teenage daughter, Wayne Wang’s “Anywhere But Here” is a sumptuously crafted but extremely old-fashioned comedy-drama, made in the manner of Hollywood weepies of yesteryear. Natalie Portman, who’s rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished young screen actresses working today, lends excellent support to Susan Sarandon’s turn as her eccentric but ultimately self-sacrificing mother. Targeting the audiences who went for “Stepmom,” Sarandon’s last foray into maternal fare, this heartfelt film, which exploits two of Hollywood’s most reliable formats — the road movie and the intergenerational meller — should do above-mid-range numbers, somewhere between the B.O.s of Wang’s 1993 “The Joy Luck Club” and “Stepmom.”
As he has demonstrated in previous work, particularly “Joy Luck” and “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,” Wang’s sensitive, humanistic approach is best suited to emotional stories about women. Though new pic is set in 1995, and is based on Mona Simpson’s 1986 novel, a good deal of the film registers as an updated version of the King Vidor version of “Stella Dallas,” with Sarandon’s crude working-class woman reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck’s role in the 1937 film.
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Pic will also draw comparisons to Scorsese’s 1974 “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and Gavin O’Connor’s upcoming “Tumbleweeds,” both of which are more interesting pictures than Wang’s; these moralistic sagas revolve around irresponsible or immature middle-aged women who hit the road with their children in search of a better, more meaningful life.
In the first scene, Adele (Sarandon) and 14-year-old Ann (Portman) are zooming down the highway in their 1978 Mercedes, heading toward the promised land of Beverly Hills. Against Ann’s will, they’re leaving Bay City, Wis., a provincial town Adele finds stifling. Through endless bickering and brief flashbacks, crucial background is conveyed: Ann has never met her Egyptian biological father; Adele walked out on Ann’s stepfather; she recklessly bought the car; and so on.
Ann is furious over losing the cozy family and social life she enjoyed in Bay City with her grandmother Lillian (Eileen Ryan), cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy) and intimate friends. While not quite a stage mother, Adele is pushing her daughter into acting, hoping that life in sunny Los Angeles will fulfill her dreams.
Their first stop is the Beverly Hills Hotel, a symbol of Adele’s quest. But they can’t afford it and instead settle into a Travelodge motel. A random meeting with a real estate agent, Gail (Caroline Aaron), leads them to an apartment in Beverly Hills, and over the course of a year they move from one shabby place to another.
Whenever she’s down, Adele forces Ann to go shopping with her or join her for a meal in an expensive restaurant. There’s a basic role reversal: Ann is more realistic and pragmatic than her flighty mom. Indeed, Ann is quicker to realize that her mother’s one-night stand with Josh (Hart Bochner) is just that, while Adele keeps calling him, hoping he’ll take her to the opera.
Ann goes through a painful coming of age, underlined by her studying in a new school and her eager desire to meet her father. In a touching scene, Ann calls her dad, but he misperceives the gesture as a request for money. Turning point in the central relationship occurs when Adele sneaks into an audition that she had forced upon her daughter and is shocked to see Ann deliver a monologue that mimics her words and gestures.
Throughout, Alvin Sargent’s scenario recalls quintessential scenes and characters from Hollywood tearjerkers. The motif of a daughter embarrassed by her mom’s behavior and tasteless attire is reminiscent of “Stella Dallas.” The tough character of real estate agent Gail, who becomes Adele’s buddy, is similar to the roles played by Eve Arden in “Mildred Pierce” and by Diane Ladd in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Pic’s first hour is unexciting, and Sarandon’s broad rendition makes the material unbearably familiar; this is one of her least subtle perfs. But the story improves as it unfolds, and the tension between mom and daughter when latter decides to attend an East Coast college is particularly well handled.
Even so, it may be telling that some of the most emotionally honest scenes involve interaction between Ann and other young characters. There’s a priceless scene in which Ann and Benny candidly talk about their feelings and sexuality. There are also several deftly and humorously observed scenes in which Ann is courted by a handsome classmate (Ray Baker).
Sarandon’s acting becomes more multishaded and refined in the last reel, but the revelation here is Portman, whose casting was reportedly Sarandon’s condition for making the movie. With half a dozen roles to her credit, Portman is a natural performer who brings rough edges to any role she plays — the movie is inconceivable without her.
Wang’s staging is less astute than in his other work, but he directs with clarity, stressing crowd-pleasing and tear-jerking moments. This kind of manipulation, with at least four scenes in which the protagonists themselves burst out crying, has always been integral to the genre. Pic’s main modernist touch is Roger Deakins’ crisp, widescreen lensing, which elevates the story a couple of notches above the conventional sensibility of its source material.