Where the Heart Is wastes no time finding where the heartstrings are, then starts tugging on them like a tugboat. Natalie Portman stars as Novalee, a 17-year-old Tennessean who, when the movie opens, is barefoot and pregnant and soon to be abandoned by her boyfriend on the way to California. With nowhere else to go, she holes up in a Wal-Mart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, sneaking in after the store's closed and finally, one dark and lonely night, giving birth in Aisle 4, an event that the movie endows with religious overtones. Somewhere up there, Sam Walton is smiling. Director Matt Williams can't seem to decide whether to poke fun at his trailer-park denizens or treat them like the salt of the earth--either way, the movie's condescending. And it's set in one of those John Irving-like fictional universes where the tedium of everyday life is constantly interrupted by tornadoes, kidnappings and other freakish acts of God and man. What Cider House Rules did to abortion, Where the Heart Is does to teenage pregnancy, sliding around the difficult questions in a heartwarming way while congratulating itself for bringing up the idea in the first place.
Some mighty fine actresses fling themselves at mid-America--Portman, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, Sally Field. But only Joan Cusack, in a small role as a music agent, manages to stay on her feet.