Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Parent Trap

Actors stuck in Hollywood cheese.

By Hadley Hury

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  What goes right about Anywhere But Here can be attributed in part to the fact that even when Susan Sarandon is not seen to best advantage she's the sort of movie star whom fans nonetheless enjoy communing with in the dark on a regular basis. She's like a multifaceted good friend, alternately stalwart, shrewdly funny, capable of danger or at least adventure, poignantly lost, lovably generous or wacky or low. The other aspect of this dramedy about a mother-daughter's love-hate relationship that keeps us interested is Sarandon's 18-year-old screen partner, Natalie Portman, who reveals -- after a debut obscured by alien make-up in the most recent episode of Star Wars recidivism -- that she is a formidable young actor and a face and presence with which cameras are going to have a long-term relationship.

What goes wrong about the film is that it is so hopelessly Hollywoodized, opting -- at every turn of plot, every stroke of character development, every camera angle and nuance of tone -- for the big, the obvious; it's stiff with comedy-killing explicitness and drama-draining banality. Mona Simpson's novel was not great literature to begin with, but at least its wryly comic view of a spirited but needy mother's grasp on her teenage daughter moved at its own picaresque pace. In the hands of screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Wayne Wang the story meets a double-whammy kiss of death. Sargent's reputation has consistently been saved by good actors: his scripts for Julia and Ordinary People were so turgid as to be virtually anti-cinematic. Wang (Smoke, Joy Luck Club) has a knack for female characters but a near-fatal fondness for stagy set-ups and hamhanded scene rhythm. Were it not for our fascination with the two lead actors, Anywhere But Here could qualify as a mediocre TV movie-of-the-week to which, after the second or third commercial break, one might not likely return. (There's just enough in place to imagine the less glossy and imminently more powerful film that might have been had it been scripted by Ang Lee or Bo Goldman and directed by Barbet Schroeder, Stephen Frears, or Carl Franklin.)

Adele (Sarandon) strikes out from her small Wisconsin hometown for a new "happy, sunny" life in California; in tow, reluctant and sullen, is 14-year-old Ann (Portman). The time frame of the film is the next three years, during which we see the full range of Adele's attitudes and behaviors that prompt Ann to think constantly of escape. Adele blusters them through a series of apartments, abortive friendships, and jobs; her sense of reality, though perhaps not clinically detached, is most certainly a precarious sense of home and nurture for Ann. Adele's bond to her daughter is fervent, feverish, genuine -- but also genuinely needy. It's easy to see why Sarandon would jump at the chance to play Adele. The character is showy and complex: neurotic, alternately generous and self-centered, she is one minute an enlivening spirit and the next a devouring harridan; at her worst she is every daughter's nightmare of an utterly mortifying succubus. Nonetheless, when at the end of the film Ann makes her escape to college, the mother and daughter share an epiphany, a very hard-earned recognition of the good intentions, bad times, love, and understanding that will be the bedrock of their future relationship.

Portman handles the characterization of Ann adroitly, with a dignity and reserve of powerful emotion that subtly manage to push through Sargent's airless screenplay and Wang's pedestrian mise en scene. She has a remarkable face, beautiful angles and eyes, capable of registering depth of feeling and complex subtext. For someone of her young years she has both tremendous composure on screen and an engaging accessibility. She etches movingly the ambivalence of the child of a loose-cannon parent, who finally must say: "I know that you need me, that it will be hard for you for me not to be here -- but it can't be my job anymore." And she and Sarandon are a compelling team, evincing a palpable and believable bond. They're undermined only (but seriously) by the movie's evolution as a big-budget bore with a few "big scene" arias here and there rather than as a prickly, rueful, memorable film with artistic and dramatic integrity.

A lot of mothers and daughters are likely to hear that they must run out and see Anywhere But Here, and the impulse to do so is probably a constructive one. And for a few such pairs, the film may actually strike some chords and prompt some useful discussion. It's just too bad that all of the Adeles who go are likely to come away from this Hollywood treatment of a serious theme feeling absolved, even justified, in their craziness, and the Anns will, as always, traipse out of the theatre not getting a word in edgewise, their hearts still torn between love and loathing. Perhaps, at best, Anywhere But Here will serve as an exhortation to the Anns of the world to keep those grades up, get a scholarship, and go the distance.

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