Where the Heart Is

USA 2000

Reviewed by Kay Dickinson


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Six years ago, south-western America. Willy Jack and his pregnant girlfriend Novalee move out of their trailer to find a new home. They stop at a Wal-Mart general store so that Novalee can go to the toilet; she returns to discover that Willy Jack has driven off. With no money, Novalee surreptitiously moves into the Wal-Mart. One night she goes into labour and is taken to hospital by Forney, the town's librarian. She becomes a minor celebrity and her daughter Americus is dubbed the "Wal-Mart baby". When her previously absent mother visits her and steals the money she's received in gifts from the public, she moves in with Sister Husband, a woman she met in the shop. As the years go by, she builds up a photographic business living happily with Sister Husband who later dies in a tornado. She develops a close friendship with Forney and gradually realises he's in love with her. On the day of his alcoholic sister's funeral, they have sex, but after Novalee tells him she doesn't love him, Forney leaves town for university.

Meanwhile, Willy Jack has served time in prison and had a career as a country singer. Having turned to drugs and alcohol, he stumbles into the path of a train and loses his legs. Novalee reads a newspaper report about his wheelchair being stolen and visits him in hospital. He inspires her to visit Forney at college, where she tells him she loves him. They are married in the Wal-Mart.


On paper Where the Heart Is looks like a jaunt through melodrama's most tawdry and tragic themes: its homeless heroine Novalee gives birth in a general store, her daughter is kidnapped by militant Christians, her surrogate mother is sucked up by a passing tornado, her best friend's children are sexually abused and her ex-partner's legs are run over by a train. It's startling, then, when a movie thronging with this much spectacular bad luck turns out to be so leaden. Whether consciously dismissive or simply clueless about the ironic treats it could have offered, the film promotes teenage single parenthood and small-town warmth with the straightest of faces.

Herbert Ross' 1989 melodrama Steel Magnolias may have been set a little further east than this film, but otherwise there's not much to separate these two wishful mirages of neighbourhood wholesomeness. Admittedly, Where the Heart Is' portrait of the apple-pie idyll in which it's set does have the odd dark touch: the film, for instance, doesn't hide away its alcoholics, of which there are four, and generously welcomes them into the bosom of the community, no questions asked. But here you're left wondering why in such a supportive place, they took to the bottle in the first place. Unfortunately the crammed plot has far too much else going on to offer any such insight.

The contradiction of plugging small-town tranquillity within such a hurtling storyline is exacerbated by the appearance of a cyclone. The images of Novalee clinging on to a storm-shelter door amid the ungainly special effects that created the pewter-hued maelstrom bring to mind Douglas Sirk's melodramas, as do the characters' unnervingly speedy return to everyday life. But the sequence seems less an exercise in deliberate distanciation than a directorial misfire on the part of first-timer Matt Williams - an ill-advised attempt at a bit of CGI spectacle on a modest budget.

The movie's distinguished cast do their best; Natalie Portman even manages to coo "How can you love someone so much who you've just met?" at her character's new-born without making the moment seem too risible. Unfortunately, the spirited performances (notably Stockard Channing as the benevolent Sister Husband) buckle under the weight of the implausibly overloaded script. Knowingly playful hyperbole sneaks in courtesy of Joan Cusack's seen-it-all-before music manager and Sally Field's trampy bottle-blonde mother, a performance fuelled by an evident fervour for playing against type.


Matt Williams
Matt Williams
Susan Cartsonis
David McFadzean
Patricia Whitcher
Lowell Ganz
Babaloo Mandel
Based on the novel by
Billie Letts
Director of Photography
Richard Greatrex
Ian Crafford
Production Designer
Paul Peters
Mason Daring
©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Production Companies
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Wind Dancer production
Executive Producers
Carmen Finestra
Rick Leed
Gerrit Folsom
Dianne Minter Lewis
Associate Producer
Roz Weisberg
Production Co-ordinators
Leigh Wilborn
Shanti Del Sarte
Unit Production Manager
Patricia Whitcher
Location Managers
Eric A. Williams
Robbie Friedman
2nd Unit Director
Matt Earl Beesley
Assistant Directors
Matt Earl Beesley
Vince Palmo Jr
Brian Steward
Script Supervisor
Gina Grande
Mali Finn
Jo Edna Boldin
LA Associate:
Emily Schweber
B Camera/Steadicam Operator
Ralph Watson
Visual Effects Supervisor
David J. Negron Jr
Visual Effects/Tornado Animation
Special Effects
Margaret Johnson
Randy Moore
Graphic Designer
Annilee Ballentine Ramirez
Art Director
John Frick
Set Designer
Janet Stokes
Set Decorator
Amy Wells
Novalee's Photographs
Keith Carter
Moses' Photographs
Ken Light
Costume Designer
Melinda Eshelman
Costume Supervisor
Jo Kissack
Felicity Bowring
Keith Sayer
Key Stylist:
Beth Miller
Bridget Cook
Scarlet Letters
Custom Film Effects
Pacific Title
Kenny White
Duke Levine
Dave Mattacks
Paul Bryan
Billy Novick
Music Conductor
Marty Brody
Marty Brody
Dana Brayton
Music Supervisor
Lisa Brown
Music Co-ordinator
David Shacter
Music Editor
Brent Brooks
Score Recordist
Michael Golub
Score Mixer
John Richards
"Ride Like Hell" - Big Sugar; "Few and Far Between" by Kevin Bowe, Shannon - Shannon Curfman; "Rowdy Booty Time" - Joan Osborne and Tommy Sims; "Let It Slip Away" - John Hiatt; "Just Might Change Your Life" - Girlfriendz; "That's the Beat of a Heart" - Michael McCarthy; "So Young" The Corrs; "Only You (And You Alone)" - Lonestar; "So Excited" - NRBQ; "That's the Beat of a Heart" - The Warren Brothers featuring Sara Evans; "Shake My Soul" - Beth Nielsen Chapman, Annie Roboff, Carmen Rizzo; "Trains Crossing" - Duke Levine; "What'd I Say" - Lyle Lovett; "Completely" - Jennifer Day; "Mustang Sally" - Malford Milligan; "Beyond the Blue" - Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin; "There You Are" - Martina McBride; "Grow Young with You" - Coley McCabe with special guest Andy Griggs
Sound Supervisor
Charlie Shepard
Sound Mixer
Hank Garfield
Re-recording Mixers
David Fluhr
Adam Jenkins
Dialogue Editor
Michael Magill
Effects Editors
Richard Burton
Suhail Kafity
Matt Temple
Kami Asgar
Group Supervisor:
Johnny Gidcomb
Loop De Loop
Linda Folk
Foley Editor
Jonathan Klein
Stunt Co-ordinator
Randy Fife
Natalie Portman
Novalee Nation
Ashley Judd
Lexie Coop
Stockard Channing
Sister Husband
Joan Cusack
Ruth Meyers
James Frain
Forney Hull
Dylan Bruno
Willy Jack Pickens
Keith David
Moses Whitecotten
Sally Field
Mama Lil
Richard Jones
Mr Sprock
Ray Prewitt
Laura House
Karey Green
Mary Ashleigh Green
girl in bathroom
Kinna McInroe
Wal-Mart clerk
Laura Auldridge
Wal-Mart assistant manager
Alicia Godwin
Dennis Letts
Kathryn Esquivel
Mrs Ortiz
Mark Mathis
John Daniel Evermore
Linda Wakeman
hospital receptionist
David Alvarado
Mark Voges
religious man
Angee Hughes
religious woman
Todd Lowe
Margaret Ann Hoard
Mary Elizabeth Hull
Rodger Boyce
Officer Harry
Gabriel Folse
policeman 2
MacKenzie Fitzgerald
Natalie Pena
Angela Ortiz
Yvette Diaz
Rosanna Ortiz
T.J. McFarland
Richard Nance
Johnny Desoto
Tony Mann
M.C. of banquet
John Swasey
Scarlett McAlister
Kylie Harmon
Cody Linley
Bob Coonrod
Heather Kafka
Angelina Fiordellisi
Cheyenne Rushing
20th Century Fox (UK)
10,785 feet
119 minutes 51 seconds
Dolby Digital
Colour/Prints by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011