Anywhere But Here Review

by Edward Johnson-Ott (ejohnsonott AT prodigy DOT net)
November 25th, 1999

Anywhere But Here (1999)
Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Eileen Ryan, Ray Baker, John Diehl, Shawn Hatosy, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Milhoan, Paul Guilfoyle, Corbin Allred. Screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Mona Simpson. Directed by Wayne Wang. 114 minutes.
PG-13, 3.5 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
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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 surface.

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.

© 1999 Ed Johnson-Ott

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