Anywhere but Here 
Anywhere but Here USA, 1999. Rated PG-13. 114 minutes.

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Eileen Ryan, Corbin Allred, Eileen Ryan, Shawn Hatosy, Ray Baker, John Diehl, Bonnie Bedelia
Writer: Alvin Sargent from the novel by Mona Simpson
Music: Danny Elfman (score and songs), Lisa Loeb (song)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Producer: Laurence Mark
Director: Wayne Wang

Grade: B Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry

M ovies excel at showing great spectacle, creating vast exquisitely realized alternate universes, and transporting us backward and forward through time and to places that never existed. However, they are also the ideal medium through which to examine emotions and relationships. They let us look at ordinary life from the unique perspective of empathy and distance. They can allow us to get into the feelings of characters, while still maintaining enough distance to make sense of those feelings without being overwhelmed by them, as we too often are in our own lives. Anywhere but Here is obviously in the latter category.Susan Sarandon

The story of a mother and daughter and how they cope with each other, Anywhere but Here has been criticized for being a soap opera or a Lifetime Channel movie-of-the-week. That ghetto-ization of this story that examines a relationship practically every woman experiences from at least one point of view is as incorrect as it is insulting. The story may not be groundbreaking, but most stories, and all of the best ones, bear repeating.

Adele August (Susan Sarandon) is one of those stock characters who is shaking the dust of her little town off her shoes to head off and find her dreams, dragging her daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) with her. Adele is selfish and impulsive, with little sense of responsibility or consequences. Ann is bereft at leaving behind her family, friends, and life. Resentment and ill will ensues. Adele's dream is to live in Beverly Hills, get Ann an acting career, and snare herself a rich husband. Ann, a far more thoughtful individual, wonders where they are going to live, what they're going to eat, and whether the electric bill's been paid. The film follows the pair for three years of ups and downs, always focusing on the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, almost to the exclusion of anyone else.Natalie Portman

Despite the embarrassment she causes, Ann loves her mother very much. Unfortunately, the movie is a little light on showing us why. It spends a great deal of time concentrating on the moments in which Adele screws up, again, by not paying the light bill, or by suggesting ice cream as a solution to all life's woes, but there are very few moments showing us why Ann feels so fierce a bond that she won't pack up and go live with her grandmother or her aunt and uncle. She does make a feeble attempt to find her biological father, but if Adele were only as bad as the film makes out, Ann would have been on the first bus back to Bay City, Wisconsin.Sarandon and Portman

That flaw aside, Anywhere but Here is resonant because of the outstanding performances by the lead actresses. In fact, because Sarandon is portraying Adele, that flaw is almost unnoticeable. We know a heart of gold that would do anything for her child is buried somewhere beneath the flashy clothes and brassy attitude. Sarandon expertly exposes Adele's insecurities and fears without the sort of overblown "telling us so" that a less deft film and actor might need. Natalie Portman is her co-star's equal, both in subtlety and natural delivery. Those who have only seen Portman in Star Wars: Episode One--The Phantom Menace should see this film (not to mention The Professional and Beautiful Girls) just to discover how stunningly talented a young actor can be. These two are beyond real. They seem to have a rapport that could only have been forged by once occupying the same body.
The Big Picture

Director Wayne Wang paces the film like the passing of days; we know time is going by, but within the world of Ann and Adele, seemingly little changes. Ann becomes slightly more comfortable in her new surroundings, changing inside without realizing it, just like growing up. Adele does a bit of growing up herself, but her lessons seem far more painful. It's as if the film is telling us that teenagers grow by gathering experiences, adults grow by failure. Because we are watching life unfold, the tension the film builds toward is the time Ann leaves Adele behind. They both know it is coming, one marking the days like a prisoner in a jail cell, the other immersing herself in denial that the day will ever come. When it does, this mother and daughter who have spent so much time occupying the other's conventional roles, switch back into their rightful places--if only for a brief time.

Anywhere but Here is successful because it is a film about people and the people are successful at conveying their complexities. Though this movie won't pack 'em in like an effects-laden blockbuster, it works as that other kind of film. Allowing us to feel and understand--and possibly relive--that impossibly brief period of time when both mothers and daughters realize that childhood is over.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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