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Aisle Be Seeing You

A top-notch cast compensates for dubious credibility in Where the Heart Is.

It's Portman's film to make or break, however, and she's basically a good choice: As someone who has played wise beyond her years in virtually every film role since her debut in The Professional, she effectively takes Novalee through the five-year journey into adulthood. Her accent is also spot-on; those who cringed at her "kinda-sorta" English accent in The Phantom Menace need not fear her Southern twang, although its similarity to King of the Hill's Luann makes it occasionally more risible than perhaps it should be. Unfortunately, her well-documented aversion to love scenes is obvious; what little we see here makes the similarly inhibited Neve Campbell look like a porn star by comparison. And co-star Judd may have too similar a look to Portman's: As Novalee grows older, she starts wearing her hair the same way, and that can lead to confusion in some of the wide shots.

The most significant omission from the novel is a sense of Native American spirituality, which touches both Novalee (inspiring her budding photography skills and love of nature) and Willy Jack (who in the book is helped by a mystically inclined Indian cellmate when his heart stops beating). Eliminating the relevant Native American characters does simplify things, but it seems a significant tonal change, and is especially incongruent given that the name "Novalee Nation" is most likely Indian in origin. The book's most significant insight is also lost, a nicely written scene in which Novalee discusses with Forney how you suddenly realize you're an adult when you find yourself doing something only adults do.

There's less of Wal-Mart in the movie, too, but that's probably just time constraints. What we do see is a loving look at trash Americana: disgustingly bright corn-dog ads, Super Big Gulps, Icee machines and everything anyone could need to camp out in the middle of a large department store at night. That last item may quickly become an anachronism, however, with more and more Wal-Marts going 24 hours, or at least closing later than nine. Give Billie Letts credit for realizing that Wal-Mart has become the community center for a lot of small towns, and give Wal-Mart credit for going along with the gag, in print and on screen.

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