Anywhere But Here has its share of flaws, but it has a good clear sense of emotion. That probably makes it a chick flick, but as chick flicks go, this one is very successful.
When I say that it has a clear sense of emotion, I mean that at every point, the characters’ emotions are real, well-expressed, and relevant. I think it’s worth mentioning because in other movies, the emotion is often dictated by the plot. A character reacts, not they way they really should react, but the way that the screenwriter needs them to. Not so in this movie.
A quick example: After a fight with her mother, Ann (Natalie Portman) is left on the side of the road and mom drives off. Her first reaction is to storm off in the opposite direction. When mom doesn’t immediately return, Ann starts to look worried, sad, and self-pitying. Then when her mom finally does come back, she turns and walks away from the road altogether, once again stubborn and angry. It shows the movie’s solid, astute sense of how people feel and behave.
But I’m ahead of myself.
Anywhere But Here follows the story of a mother and daughter (Susan Sarandon and Portman). They drive their no-longer new, gold Mercedes from Wisconsin to California. They’ve left their old lives behind in order to set up new ones on the west coast.
Adele (Sarandon) is satisfied and joyful at getting away from small town life. She’s very optimistic about living in California, perhaps a little naïvely so. She is certain she will get a job teaching in L.A. and that they will get a nice but affordable place in Beverly Hills, where Ann will go to school. She also knows that Ann will make a beautiful child actress, and that they will be the best of friends in their new home in paradise.
Ann is often sullen and occasionally rebellious. She’s not sure why they had to leave Wisconsin, and she doesn’t entirely approve of her mother’s behavior (although she doesn’t know quite how to express it yet). She doesn’t share her mother’s optimism about the move. That’s not to say she’s cynical, but she is more realistic about what they have given up and what they have yet to gain. To top it all off, she has no interest in becoming an actress.
Both Sarandon and Portman give very good, precise performances. Both had a great sense of character that seemed to jibe with Wang’s ideas of how the movie should play. Their “chemistry” is hard to judge because their characters weren’t supposed to get along — the inevitable friction between mother and daughter defines most of their moments together — but the scenes of them together felt right on target.
For a while, the movie looks like Slums of Beverly Hills from last year, in which the family moves in and out of cheap apartments, always staying just inside the school district. Adele and Ann’s apartments are neither big nor glamorous, nor well-furnished. Sometimes Adele forgets to pay the bills and the apartment goes completely dark. Technically, they are living Adele’s dream, but only Ann has the perspective to see that it’s a pretty bad life.
A contrived plot device brings them back to Wisconsin, where Ann gets a fresh perspective on their troubled life in California, and on her images of home. “The streets are less wide, the trees are less tall and the house is smaller,” intones Ann in voiceover. Ann never thought of California as home, but now, after returning, she realizes that “home” isn’t Wisconsin, either. “Home” is nowhere. That realization is both frightening and liberating. It forces her (and to some extent her mom) to find some roots within herself.
When they return to California, they get a new apartment with nice furniture. They pick a color and paint their rooms. They are still poor, but they choose to make their surroundings permanent and stable. Although mom and daughter still fight, it seems more relaxing, now that they’re not transient.
The emotional conflict between mother and daughter builds, but never to too-exaggerated heights. Their differences finally reach a relatively cool boiling point, and the movie comes to it’s predictable but satisfying conclusion.
What’s important to a chick flick — emotion — is what works best in Anywhere But Here. Even the man next to me said when it was over, “that’s not really my type of movie but it was better than I expected.”