It's always a good idea to be wary of movie characters who come bearing funny names. All too often, the humor doesn't stretch past the nomenclature.
With that in mind, you might look askance at a movie chock-full of characters named Novalee, Baby Ruth, Sister Husband, Willy Jack and worse. In the case of "Where the Heart Is," it doesn't help that New York writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel have adapted the book of the same name by Billie Letts, a cornpone novel about small-town Oklahoma life. Mandel and Ganz can't quite let it pass that everyone in Sequoyah, Okla., shops at Wal-Mart, that poor folks sometimes drive rusted-out cars or that lots of them live in trailers. One can almost feel the writers (and director Matt Williams) periodically pausing for canned laughter because they think such real-life peculiarities are just so darned humorous.
In taking cheap shots at those of us who don't live in Manhattan, Williams and company undermine the real strengths of their movie. Those strengths are Letts' determined characters and their quiet struggles with the harsh realities of survival in a world that's far from the interstate.
Exemplifying those difficulties is Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), a teen-aged, unwed mother who takes up residence in a Wal-Mart after her shiftless boyfriend abandons her there. Luck, pluck and sheer guts raise her out of that fix and into a better life.
Coming to her aid are women like Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a born-again Christian, and Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), a big-sister figure with her own romantic disasters to contend with. Even as the story allows us to catch up with the men in Novalee's life, it's her relationships with these other women that remain the most important.
Ganz and Mandel can't resist going for easy laughs, even as their script exposes us to tornadoes, deaths and molested children. It's a schizophrenic platform for Portman's first adult role, yet she makes a grand performance of it. Gawky as her limbs and gait may be, her eyes reflect the simple insight for which the terms "ground-level" and "grass-roots" were coined.
Judd plays best pal with upbeat confidence, and Channing makes a game try at redneckery. Sally Field has a charming cameo as Mama Lil, sort of a Norma Rae gone bad.
Williams, a veteran of family-oriented TV series like "Roseanne," works to keep the film's feet on the dusty ground. But it's hard to miss the downward gaze his writers train on their subjects. Maybe Middle America's complaints about the Eastern-liberal media establishment aren't so far-fetched after all.