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Anywhere But Here

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 12 November 1999

Anywhere But Here  

Directed by Wayne Wang.

Starring Susan Sarandon, 
Natalie Portman, Shawn Hatosy, 
Caroline Aaron, Paul Guilfoyle, 
Corbin Allred, Eileen Ryan, 
Ray Baker, John Diehl, 
Bonnie Bedelia and Hart Bochner.

Screenplay by Alvin Sargent, 
based on the novel by Mona Simpson.

Adele August (Susan Sarandon), at the wheel of her second-hand Mercedes, is happily munching junk food while listening to the Beach Boys on the radio, much to the growing consternation of her teenage daughter Ann (Natalie Portman). Ann finally turns off the radio and says that she hates the Beach Boys. Adele dumps her out on the side of the road -- somewhere between desolation and Salt Lake City. After she drives away, Ann becomes a bit scared -- maybe she's left out there in the middle of nowhere after all. But, after just long enough for the feeling to sink in, Adele drives back, and picks her back up in the car after all. It is the last predictable thing to happen in the movie.

Anywhere But Here chronicles how Adele drags Ann from the small town of Bay City, Wisconsin, where their relatives live, to what is supposed to be a better life for them in California, most preferably Beverly Hills. Adele will get a job teaching, and Ann will get to go to school in what Adele things is the best school district in the country. Of course, there is no job waiting for Adele in California, and she and Ann end up hopscotching from one apartment to another without ever finding a permanent place to live or even enough furniture to fill up an apartment. Ann does get to go to school in Beverly Hills, but Adele is a free-spirit and Ann comes to loathe how their life never attains some sort of stasis.

Adele is, along with being impractical and delusional, monstrously selfish, but Susan Sarandon finds a way to make her appealing without ignoring this fact. The character she plays seems like a bundle of contradictory traits, at times -- overbearing one moment and giving the next, tangential yet fiercely loving and loved in return.

The director Wayne Wang has had a tendency to create films that are dramatically piecemeal at times, sometimes to good effect (as in Smoke), sometimes not (as in Chinese Box, his breakneck attempt to create an East-West drama on location in Hong Kong during the last moments before the mainland Chinese government assumed control). Wang does have a talent for getting very good work out of his actors, and that proves to be the case, here, from the lead performers on down. There's a couple of wonderful scenes with Michael Milhone as a Beverly Hills patrol cop who just happens to stop Adele during two critical junctures in the story. And the scenes with Shawn Hatosy, as Ann's young cousin Benny, show him and Ann horsing-around in such a way that makes one understand why Ann has left more than a home and a group of people behind when she left Bay City.

What this film has trouble doing is finding a way of making us understand why Adele is conducting her life the way she does, and what holds her and Ann together. Once Ann approaches high school graduation, she becomes set upon breaking away and starting a life of her own, like any other normal, healthy young adult. And Natalie Portman's performance reflects all the yearning and pent-up energy behind Ann's motivations vividly. Freed from her trussed-up, constraining appearance as Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace, Portman shows that she has become a considerable actress, one who can communicate, intuitively, with an audience like a laser ray. We see how the relationship between her and Adele subtly changes from mother-daughter to one of two people on equal footing, and how Ann's having to assume certain responsibilities too early in life has also stolen something from her in the process, making her determination all the more so while tempered by the kind of insight and resolution that comes from coming home too many nights and flipping the light switch to discover that her mother has, habitually, forgotten to pay the power bill, again.

The film ultimately wants us to see that Adele, despite her weaknesses and inconsistencies, is some sort of indomitable, even admirable, personage -- as Ann puts it, someone with some force, "some power, and when she dies, the world will be flat...." Sarandon tries very hard to find the right emotional tones that would make Adele's many, many moods in the film jive together, and she never looks like she's trying too hard, becoming too fraught or too strained in her performance. We come to see why Adele acts stupidly, foolishly or desperately, and we, almost, take a grudging liking to her, ourselves. But you can't shake the idea that Adele will more likely be even more lost on her own than she was when it was just her and Ann, and the film fails to end on the final, reassuring, triumphal note that it seeks. 

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