The only child of a physician and an artist, child prodigy actress Natalie Portman spent her early years in the city of her birth, Jerusalem, before her family moved to the United States at the age of three. Though she had her heart set on pursuing an acting career during her formative childhood, her first break came from the world of modeling, when she was 'discovered' in a pizza parlor by a Revlon scout at the age of eleven. Despite her appearance in Revlon ads, with more opportunities in the modeling world knocking on her door, Portman never let go of her acting aspirations.
She finally got her wish in 1994, when she was selected from thousands of young actresses to play the role of Mathilda in Luc Besson's "The Professional". Her performance, as a naive orphan who became entwined in the violent world of a hitman, earned her a number of kudos, including a nomination for Best Actress in a Drama from the Young Star Awards that year. Her impressive debut put her career into high-gear, providing a number of small but memorable roles to further hone her craft, such as in "Heat", where she played Al Pacino's neurotic stepdaughter. In 1996, Portman went on to appear in "Mars Attacks!" and "Everyone Says I Love You", but the one role that indelibly put the young actress on the map was that of Marty, a perceptive and charismatic thirteen year-old in "Beautiful Girls". Even while was still attending in high school, Portman managed to squeeze in a highly acclaimed six-month run on Broadway in the title role of "The Diary of Anne Frank"
In 1999, Portman's career continued its seemingly unstoppable ascent, with her iconic appearance as Queen Amidala, in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace". Though her performance was hampered by the quality of the script, her screen presence was a welcome sight amidst the CGI-gone-awry and her less-than-impressive co-stars. Later that year, Portman returned to movie screens in Wayne Wang's mother-daughter bonding film "Anywhere But Here", where a better script allowed her to deliver what was considered to be the best performance so far in her short career.
Her latest role, in "Where the Heart Is", raises the bar yet again. Portman is appealing and credible as the film's central character, a young and unwed teenage mother cast adrift in the heartland of America. And though the 'chick flick' script is nothing new, detailing the oft-told story of a young woman finding love and a sense of purpose after moving into a small town (witness "The Spitfire Grill" from 1997), Portman's presence keeps the proceedings engaging and satisfying, despite a somewhat contrived and scatterbrained script.
The film essentially remains faithful to the Billie Letts novel upon which it is based, with minor alterations. Novalee Nation (Portman), a naive teenager who's 'never lived anyplace that didn't have wheels under it', starts off literally barefoot and pregnant. While on a road trip from Tennessee to California with her trailer-trash boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno of "Saving Private Ryan"), Novalee uses the washroom of a Wal-Mart (which certainly gets quite a bit of product-placement screen time), only to find herself abandoned. Seven months pregnant and with nowhere to go, Novalee winds up spending her nights shacked up illegally in the Wal-Mart. Fortunately, she is befriended by the unofficial welcome wagon of the town of Sequoyah, Sister Husband (Stockard Channing, seen recently in "Isn't She Great"), an affable Wal-Mart photographer (Keith David of "Pitch Black"), and the town's curt librarian, Forney (James Frain of "Reindeer Games").
One night, Novalee suddenly goes into labor, and fortunately Forney is there to help her through the ordeal. She wakes up and finds herself in the local hospital, where she has become the town's newest celebrity, the mother of 'the Wal-Mart baby'. Under the care of Lexie (Ashley Judd of "Double Jeopardy"), a spirited nurse who has more luck in getting pregnant than in finding the right man, Novalee makes a full recovery and names her baby girl Americus.
From there, the film jerkily jumps through the ensuing years, offering snippets of Novalee's struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter, with the triumphs and tragedies dished out in equal amounts. Not surprisingly, a relationship with Forney is developed, which becomes key to Novalee's eventual emotional maturation. Meanwhile, the story also keeps up with Willy, who eventually finds fame as a country singer, under the tutelage of a caustic agent (Joan Cusack of "High Fidelity").
"Where the Heart Is" is certainly ambitious in trying to cover so much ground in its two-hour running time, which is where the majority of the problems lie. The film plays out like a miniseries that has been hastily condensed down into a feature film. Plot twists are piled onto coincidences are piled onto plot contrivances, with major events, some relevant and not-so-relevant to the story at hand, being unleashed every few minutes, including a spectacular sequence that brings "Twister" to mind. Melodrama is in abundance here, as the major milestones of life are thrown into the mix with predictable results-- birth, death, love, illness, redemption, etc.
Despite the roundabout way the story has of getting to its point, "Where the Heart Is" is not as tedious a viewing experience as it sounds. Thankfully, the strong performances of the cast, particularly that of Portman, save this messy concoction from itself. Remaining front and center throughout the story, Portman manages to keep the often-schmaltzy story interesting with her sincere and poignant portrayal of a young woman's coming of age. Frain acquits himself nicely as Novalee's amiable love interest, whose restless exterior gives way to unwavering kindness underneath. Channing, despite her character's implausible eccentricities, exudes warmth as Novalee's surrogate mother, while Judd makes quite a scene-stealing impression with a seemingly one-joke caricature.
"Where the Heart Is" could have used some judicious paring down of the source material-- at times, the story rambles aimlessly like a melodramatic travelogue. However, it still manages to be emotionally satisfying and heartwarming on the strength of its performances, making it easy to overlook the film's more obvious deficiencies. There is little doubt that Natalie Portman delivers the best performance of her career in "Where the Heart Is". If someday in the future, she were to receive a lifetime achievement award of some type, I'm sure that they'll include a clip from this film as part of a retrospective on her early years in Hollywood.