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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Anywhere But Here (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by Wayne Wang
Cast: Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Shawn Hatosy, Corbin Allred, Hart Bochner, Thora Birch, Heather McComb, Ashley Johnson, Heather DeLoach, Elisabeth Moss, Bonnie Bedelia, John Diehl, Caroline Aaron, Eileen Ryan, Paul Guilfoyle, Ray Baker, Megan Mullally, Bob Sattler.
1999 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 13, 1999.

Wayne Wang is a masterful filmmaker who first proved in 1993's "The Joy Luck Club" that he has a talent and affinity for telling wonderfully accurate stories about female characters, and carries that right into "Anywhere But Here," which is one of the most truthful and affectionate films about a mother-daughter relationship in many years, and ranks well within the same league as 1983's "Terms of Endearment" and 1989's "Steel Magnolias." The fundamental ingredients for a manipulative sap-fest are all in place, and yet the film never once seems to be pulling at your heartstrings for the main reason being to get you to cry. The richly textured, multi-layered screenplay, by Academy Award winner Alvin Sargent (1980's "Ordinary People"), is too assured to aim for simple melodrama, and the performances by Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon are just about as remarkable as two performances could possibly be. They raise the already-winning material to an even higher plateau of success.

Based on a 1986 novel by Mona Simpson, "Anywhere But Here" begins as the eccentric, middle-aged Adele (Susan Sarandon) is driving through the desert with her 14-year-old daughter Ann (Natalie Portman), headed for Beverly Hills. Adele, at times a childish and frustrating woman who doesn't listen to what others tell her, is set on putting her MA degree in early education to positive use and getting Ann into showbiz. Ann, however, wants nothing to do with acting, and is distressed to have just been yanked from her hometown of Bay City, Wisconsin, leaving her relatives and particularly, her soulmate, and cousin, Benny (Shawn Hatosy). Getting a small apartment "outside of the posh section of Beverly Hills, but still in the school district," Adele easily gets a job teaching, while Ann starts school at Beverly Hills High, where she comments, "everyone looks like they're going to the beach." Longing to be back east but willing to stick things out for love of her mother, Ann quickly makes some new friends at school and catches the eye of a charming, poetry-loving classmate Peter (Corbin Allred).

Refreshingly without a flashy story device, "Anywhere But Here" is that rare, perceptive Hollywood film that is about the characters and their emotional growth and conflicts. Admittedly, not a great deal happens plot-wise, but more occurs underneath the surface than most films would even dream about.

The fate of the film hinges almost completely on its realism and details, and it gets everything exactly right. The relationship between Adele and Ann is a complex one, and although the dependent Adele drives her crazy, Ann unconditionally loves and respects her, even when she wishes things could be more normal for them. Adele has a big personality, and always is using her charm to solve problems, sometimes with unfortunate results. Ann often feels like the mother between the two, as she always seems to be comforting Adele when things don't go her way. As the years pass by and high school graduation approaches for Ann, she desperately wants to go to an eastern college, and knows that it's about time she branches off on her own, but also fears that her mother may not be able to make it on her own. Adele loves her daughter so much, and even though she realizes she isn't the perfect, ideal mother, she confesses at one point that Ann "was the reason I was born."

In "Anywhere But Here," every element converges together to create a film that is nearly flawless in its authenticity, right down to the smallest detail. The delineation of teenagers and friendship, despite being a minor element in the story, is perhaps more genuine than in any other film this year. When Ann makes several girlfriends, we wisely are not shown when or how they meet, because it is a trivial detail. Instead, our first scene with Ann and her new friends, set in gym class as they are running around a track, captures the exact nuances and conversations that occur between teenagers in such a situation. Breaking through the wall of cliches, Ann's friends actually act and speak like kids who are 15 or 16 years old, as they do not acquire a vocabulary as large as the Webster Dictionary, and are performed with an air of naturalism that is wholeheartedly believable, by Heather McComb (1998's "Apt Pupil"), Ashley Johnson (TV's "Growing Pains," 1998's "Dancer, Texas Pop. 81), and Heather DeLoach (1995's "The Little Princess"). They are small roles, but vitally important and commendable.

Another area in which the film excels in is its depiction of how time changes things. Spanning a period of four years, one of the most fully touching interludes occurs midway through when tragedy strikes back in Wisconsin, and Adele and Ann travel to attend the funeral of a relative. At this point, they have been gone for two years, and as Ann observes, "the houses seemed smaller, the streets more narrow." There is a quiet, powerful scene between Ann and her best friend whom she hasn't seen since they left, Mary (Thora Birch, 1999's "American Beauty"), and it perfectly shows how people evolve, for better or worse, over the years. Thora Birch, appearing unbilled, makes quite a striking impression in only two scenes.

The innocence of young romance is also warmly done, and one scene with Ann and Peter in which she instructs him to strip, only for them to end up embracing in a hug, is purely gratifying without being needlessly exploitative. Corbin Allred is charismatic, funny, and virtuous as Peter, and works well with Portman. The same goes for the lovely, almost nostalgic, friendship between Ann and Benny, likably played by Shawn Hatosy (1999's "Outside Providence"), who may be cousins but truly love each other. One sequence, in which Benny comes to visit them in California, and he and Ann stay up late at night chatting away, is filled with such a sense of childhood purity, as they are on the verge of becoming adults, that it easily transcends even its aspirations.

Amidst all of the wonderful supporting players, others of which seem to have been edited down, such as Bonnie Bedelia and Eileen Ryan, as Ann's aunt and grandmother, respectively, the film always keeps its focus on Ann and Adele. In a role that could very well be a landmark in her career, Susan Sarandon is dynamite as the outwardly headstrong, but insecure, Adele. Early on, one wonders what exactly is wrong with Adele, with a possible personality disorder looking more and more likely, but we progressively learn that she is not mentally ill, but simply enraptured in her undying love for her one and only daughter. Sarandon handles each second she is on screen with the exact amount of sympathy and idiosyncrasies, and not once allows Adele to appear "wacky" or exaggerated.

If Sarandon is a marvel to behold, 18-year-old Natalie Portman is nothing less than extraordinary, and with this film joining her other Oscar-caliber work in 1994's "The Professional" and 1996's "Beautiful Girls," Portman has the chance of becoming Gen-Y's answer to Jodie Foster; she's that good. As with most teenagers, Ann is someone who occasionally can be spiteful and even a little mean, but whom we grow to care deeply about because she is also an intelligent, caring young woman whose mother is the most important person in her life, which makes things even more difficult for her when she wants to leave for college. In one heartbreaking sequence, she is forced to audition for a film, and when Adele sneaks in to watch Ann's monologue, she discovers her daughter making an obvious mockery of the way she acts.

At first glimpse, "Anywhere But Here" may appear to trudge through well-worn dramatic territory, and it might have had it been put into lesser hands. The meticulous writing, verifiable direction by Wayne Wang, effective music score by Danny Elfman, picaresque cinematography by Roger Deakins, and astonishing performances from every member of the entire cast (even Megan Mullally, of TV's "Will and Grace," leaves a major impression in one late scene), all add up to make "Anywhere But Here" an exceptional motion picture that shouldn't be degraded by being unfairly labeled a "chick flick." It is a true-to-life examination of the bond between a mother and a daughter, and has universal appeal for anyone who has ever had a parent. My guess is that that's a fairly large percentage of the viewing population.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman