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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 04/27/2000,

Where the Heart Is

Like Blanche du Bois, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman in her most complex role to date) depends on the kindness of strangers. After being ditched at a Wal-Mart by her trailer-trash boyfriend, the literally barefoot and pregnant 17-year-old lives in the superstore until she gives birth to a girl she names Americus. A small-town librarian takes her to the hospital, the nurse befriends her, and a woman who mistakes Novalee for someone else welcomes her and the baby into her home.

Based too strictly on the novel by Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is can't seem to find a rhythm. So many characters wander in and out of the story (the estranged mother, the repentant boyfriend, etc.) that none of them -- with the exception of Ashley Judd's devilishly funny mother of five (with another always on the way) -- has the chance to develop. I never understood why the well-read, college-educated librarian falls for the practically illiterate Novalee, or why her conscience-free boyfriend suddenly decides to hunt her down to apologize. Even baby Americus becomes just another prop. For a movie that claims to know where the heart is, Matt Williams's debut still needs to find the soul.

-- Jumana Farouky