Adele and Anne August, the mother and daughter who are the central characters of "Anywhere but Here," lead distinctly unspectacular lives. They initiate and end relationships; they get and give up jobs; they move from there to here. But in the typicality of their situation lay truths about the modern single-parent household that couldn't have been more accurately rendered had a real-life pair of women been equipped with cameras to record their exploits in real time.
Susan Sarandon plays Adele, a divorced schoolteacher whose emotional commitment to optimism is symptomatic of a general lack of practical judgment. Her flighty charm, however, holds no amusement for her daughter, Anne (Natalie Portman), who sees her mother's avoidance of reality as a slow-burning fuse with its far end in hell. Possessed of greater responsibility than the ditsy Adele, Anne finds herself playing the parent role. She yearns for normalcy, refusing to embrace even the more enjoyable moments of the non-traditional life she's living.
It does no good to take sides in this cross-generational skirmish. Having bought our tickets, ours is but to watch the conflict unfold as the women move from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills, struggle to survive, grapple with ghosts of old relationships and finally realize who and what they are.
Screenwriter Alan Sargent ("Ordinary People") is no stranger to troubled families. Neither is director Wayne Wang ("Smoke," "The Joy Luck Club"). It's no surprise, then, that there's hardly a false stroke to their mutual portrait of two off-balance women trying to right themselves.
Sarandon has the more difficult role, playing a character who's a bit shorter in the tooth than she is -- and wishes to be even younger. But she easily locates the pathos in how unwisely Adele chooses to wield her beauty. Portman, who is already on the fast track to becoming a major force in Hollywood, simmers with fantastic heat. Her near-seduction of an awkward wannabe boyfriend is destined to become a classic portrayal of intuitive feminine energy.
Between the two of them, "Anywhere But Here" asserts a compelling force. As an illustration of womanly competition and cooperation, it's a far, far cry from Stepmom, or even "Thelma and Louise." Despite their differences, those two films were essentially fantasies; this one strikes closer to home.
You know Adele and Anne August. You know the challenges society hands them as part of their emancipation from a male presence. This well-acted and well-assembled film makes it clear just how fascinating that drama can be.