WHERE THE HEART IS (2000)
The film I talk about here shares a title that literally completes the universal proverb ‘home is truly where the heart is’
With utter simplicity and grace, the only real luxuries available to the people who make up director Matt Williams’ 2000 feature, a sense of community is beautifully evoked to befit the urgency on the title. Then again, it refers to that one dialogue ‘where the heart is’ uttered by its protagonist Novalee(NATALIE PORTMAN) who is about to be reborn in more ways than one through impending motherhood. ‘Where the heart is’ is a sign of the baby who occupies her physicality now. Her innocence is a safe haven as against the poor, hardscrabble life she has led. She has been abandoned by her mother, has no real friends and opts to go away to California with the father of her child; he’s a tough cookie who would care less for a world of responsibilities ahead.
Its thrust on a pregnant teen abandoned by her reckless boyfriend in an Oklahoma Walmart, where she ends up taking nightly refuge while exploring the town on her own to keep herself busy during the day , is an unique coming of age tale, sensitively entwined with the beginnings of this unlikely orphan who is technically homeless and by the little strokes of luck that makes life worthwhile, discovers there are no accidents. Her self discovery is aided by the kindly townsfolk who open up their inner world to raise her, the teenage mother, in turn, raising her own in a one horse town. We discover she was always meant to be here, a place teeming with joys and pleasures stripped of any extravagance while the purity of reaching out to another, a complete stranger, is an enduring credo. I know it sounds like wish fulfillment but is charmingly realistic as we have all received the kindnesses of strangers who have become part of an ensemble, holding us aloft in a meandering modern society. I must also mention that the film is based on BILLIE LETTS’ novel by the same name.
Two of the women in this town give her unconditional support despite their own modest means. They are played beautifully by STOCKARD CHANNING and ASHLEY JUDD, the latter of whom, Lexie, is a nurse who attends to Novalee during childbirth, as she attracts media attention, and has few children to tend to as a single mother herself. Stockard is a middle aged woman called Sister and has a partner who is not her legally married one. She is the mother figure Novalee seeks. Both their free spirits help Novalee grow up, into a confident young woman who refuses to let her past dictate who she is. As a survivor from the lowest depths of the first world whose own mother dupes her (Sally Field is brilliant in a cameo), her penchant for photography keeps her reservoir of personality in flush. Then there’s love, of the romantic kind, too to discover again and the town librarian Forney Hull (James Frain) comes to her equal footing. Their personal struggles help them further forge a pathway of pure companionship. He, on his part, tends to a clinically afflicted sister with great fortitude and hope. So we see the director Matt Williams is setting examples by showing us people who dare to look beyond their own selfish interests. It’s a rarity but if these few can why not us? The local photographer (Keith David) guides her in his own way, as a father figure and motivator for her professional dreams. These men add layers of humanity to WHERE THE HEART IS; they are unassuming and yet influential in their core of simplicity.
Community is the need of the hour in today’s times and this screenplay is a testament to this collective network of positivity.Trust me when I say that you must watch it to discover its charms. There is complexity to the concerns but hopes and dreams for a better future are not quashed, be it Novalee’s as a photographer inching towards success or Forney’s pursuit of further educational excellence. Or the steady influence of a male figure for Lexie who wants more than an attraction to another. The innocence of her world is threatened by a man who harms her very young children, in what is the most heartbreaking exchange here, so true for the plight of two of the most vulnerable sections – women and children.
The practical vignettes, of episodic structures, paint a quintessentially American spirit while the transitions with Novalee’s former boyfriend’s trajectory (Dylan Bruno) show his downward spiral despite his tryst with a musical career. Joan Cusack plays his manager with an iron clad resolve in these parts . His debauchery, male ego and roving eyes dig a deep pit for him as he goes to jail, courts trouble and nixes a singing career. Of course the arc of morality and a lack of it in his case undoes him completely. To be someone entails having a pure intent. Novalee and her ilk has that. For the young man who fathered Americus, Novalee’s child, there is no redemption as misogyny is ingrained in him and he refuses to break free of that trapping.
My love for Natalie’s choices continued while watching this one. At eighteen, she brought reserves of such courage and poignancy. The process of adjusting to a home of her own happens gradually in WHERE THE HEART IS , by dint of her enterprise and the prevailing sentiment is to always look ahead and move on, with empathy by one’s side at all junctures. I realize how different it is from Juno(2007) that dealt with teenage pregnancy with an urban snap and zest of the age group it addressed . WHERE THE HEART IS is more salt of the earth and mature in tone. That includes a vignette of staunchly Christian groups condemning Novalee for being an unwed mother, positing the conservative streak in the country location. This movie doesn’t gloss over the trials and tribulations of this set of people, who are approximations of millions like them across the breadth of humanity. The shifting of years shows in the treatment accorded to this and Juno. Yet both films, according to me, strive for empathy and achieve it.Additionally, the film is about the particular and general quaintness of small towns ; in this case, it relates to the quirky names and personal habits of each individual. Also the high incidences of teenage pregnancies and school drop out rates bear themselves consequently on generations. Her mother was a product of it. Novalee turns that background stereotype around for herself and her child. She names her daughter AMERICUS with the surname NATION and as the kind photographer played by Keith David had told her earlier, a strong name is a must. To the ordinary rhythms of these lives, a name must resound beyond the humdrum and mundane. It’s a thought that lingers in the viewer. Hence the universality of the setting and its peculiar position in Novalee’s life script. It is the home she looked out for, not subject to the nomadic ways the disenfranchised adapt early on.
WHERE THE HEART IS addresses many pertinent truths, taking them out of statistical boxes and giving them heft. It wins us over by the restraint with which it maintains an outlook for what lies ahead. I’m glad I watched it.
I’m the next post, a continuation of lives caught in the undertow of underprivileged circumstances will be talked about courtesy the almost documentary like THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017); it will be like a companion piece with a distinct tone of its own.