It has become a rite of passage for actresses to strut their sincerity by seeking out roles as drawlin', attitude-slinging soul sistersthe sort of ''real,'' corn-pone-of-the-earth heroines who are inevitably labeled by the media as white trash. A critic who uses that term will generally receive letters of protest (I knowI've gotten more than my share), and, quite frankly, the letters are justified: White trash is indeed a racist epithet, one that I vow not to use again. If only Hollywood would follow suit by refusing to make any more movies like Where the Heart Is, a dodderingly downbeat good-ol'-girl picaresque that might just as well have been titled Come Back to the Fried Green Tomatoes, but Leave Your Crimes of the Heart Anywhere but Here. Simply put, it may be the lamest movie ever made about poor white...Southern characters.
How precious and folksy-false is this movie? Well, it concerns a young woman named Novalee Nation, played by Natalie Portman as a lissome baby doll who, while very pregnant, leaves her trailer-park nest, gets abandoned on the road by her loser boyfriend, and ends up moving temporarily into a Wal-Mart, where she gives birth right in the middle of the empty superstore. Poor Novalee! It's her destiny to wander, to search for a home. Soon enough, the movie brings her into communion with such kindred gothic sufferers as Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a glittery-eyed born-again Christian who starts each meal by asking God to absolve her for ''fornication,'' and Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), a single mom who has named all four of her children after snack foods (Baby Ruth, Praline, etc.).
Based on Billie Letts' novel, and directed by TV veteran Matt Williams (the creator of Roseanne and cocreator of Home Improvement), Where the Heart Is lays on the baroque Southern-fried wackiness, yet the plot is a lurching series of crises and catastrophes. At one point, there is even a special-effects twister, which practically sucks poor Novalee out of the storm cellar. Portman, with her dark dagger eyebrows, is far too elegant for this sort of down-home mess, and the movie makes the mistake of pairing her with the morosely uncharismatic James Frain, who looks like Timothy Hutton with a Mike Brady perm. It would be hard to imagine a milder threat to the sisterhood. D