Judging by its weak opening weekend box office numbers, it appears
that most filmgoers have little interest in "Anywhere But Here."
That's a shame, because this sharply observed look at the dynamics
between a mother and daughter, based on the novel by Mona Simpson, is
a nice piece of work. Director Wayne Wang ("Smoke," "The Joy Luck
Club") has a gift for character studies and the script provides him
with two very interesting characters. Add superb acting from Susan
Sarandon and Natalie Portman to the mix and you end up with an above
average production that certainly warrants a visit.
At first glance, the premise has a strong "been there, done that"
feel. Sarandon plays Adele August, a flamboyant woman who spirits her
teenage daughter Ann (Portman) away from their home in Bay City,
Wisconsin to seek out a better life in Beverly Hills. Adele views her
actions as noble and brave, while Ann simmers over essentially being
kidnapped by her self-absorbed, overbearing mother. If that sounds
familiar… well, it is, but there's a lot more going on beneath the
First off, there's Adele, who desperately wants to be stylish and
larger than life. She longs to be Thelma and Louise, Holly Golightly
and Auntie Mame put together, but the twist is that she really isn't
very good at it. For all of her theatrical flourishes, Adele is full
of fear: fear of aging, of losing her daughter, of facing a loveless
future, of being ordinary. She masks her terror with impulsive
actions, using glib one-liners as a way of whistling in the dark.
Susan Sarandon is wonderful, using those big eyes and cracked beauty
to express Adele's near-perpetual state of quiet panic. A role like
this is especially difficult; for the soufflé to work, the
character must be over-dramatic, but the actor dare not
overact. Sarandon proves up to the challenge, giving a performance so
good that it almost makes up for her appearance in last year's
insufferably mawkish "Stepmom."
Months after being buried under thick makeup and royal drapings in
"Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," Natalie Portman gets to stretch out
here, reminding us that she is one of the finest actors of her
generation. In the hands of a lesser talent, Ann could easily have
been just a sulky teen, but Portman greatly shades her character. As
angry as she is over being uprooted from family and friends, Ann still
needs her mother as much as Adele needs her. For most of the film, the
characters live in a steady state of role reversal. While Adele has
the authority, she is often more childish than Ann, leaving her
daughter to serve as surrogate mother. The flip-flop works because
Portman and Sarandon are smart enough to play it close to the vest.
Although the film is mostly a two-character drama, a few supporting
players stand out. Shawn Hatosy ("Outside Providence") is a delight as
Ann's cousin and best friend, a young man who is still clearly a kid,
although the stirrings of manhood are strong enough to throw him off
balance. Michael Milhoan has a couple of nice scenes as a paternal
traffic cop, and Corbin Allred projects wide-eyed charm as a classmate
smitten with Ann.
"Anywhere But Here" tries to keep the proceedings relatively light,
but some of its best moments are quite serious. When a
relationship-starved Adele presses too hard and scares off a potential
boyfriend after a one-night stand, her pain is amplified by the
expressions on Ann's face as she watches her mother's dreams once
again sabotaged by her own excess.
Another striking scene comes when Adele sneaks a look at her
daughter's theater audition. Ann is interested in college, not acting,
but finally succumbs to her mother's pressure for her to enter show
business. When Adele peeks in the door, she witnesses her daughter
doing a dead-on perfect impression of her, and the look on Sarandon's
face is devastating.
"Anywhere But Here" is far from perfect. The incessant squabbling
between Adele and Ann grows tedious and the ending of the film, while
emotionally satisfying, seems a little too pat when compared to the
rest of the story. But this mother-daughter portrait, coupled with an
illuminating glimpse at parental motives, rises handily above its
deficits. "Anywhere But Here" is a strong little movie that deserves
not to get lost in the box office shuffle.
Copyright © 1999 Edward Johnson-Ott