THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
In the warmth of Oklahoma hospitality, a young pregnant woman finds a place in which her heart can heal. Based on the novel by Billie Letts, “Where the Heart Is” explores the universal desire of every person to be loved and cherished, and the unusual journeys many take in reaching this goal.
The central character is a young woman named Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) who, at the age of five, had been abandoned by her mother. Superstitiously believing that the number 5 is therefore an omen for loss, her fears are repeatedly confirmed as her difficult young life evolves.
Pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, she leaves with him from their Tennessee trailer home at 5 A.M. to make a new life for themselves in California. But when they stop for Novalee to use the restroom and buy slippers in a WalMart store in Sequoyah, Oklahoma, she receives $5.55 in change. Horrified, she rushes from the store to discover that her boyfriend has abandoned her there.
Having no family or friends, Novalee decides to stay and secretly makes her home after hours among the empty aisles of a secured WalMart for the six weeks until her baby is born. One night, during a thundering storm of the Great Plains, she gives birth to her daughter, whom she gives the strong and fitting name of Americus Nation.
This “everyman” name fits the fable quality of the film’s moralistic message. Novalee is a nova whose life brightens suddenly when she is loved by Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) who cherishes her as a sister and provides for her as a husband. Novalee’s wily boyfriend is named Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruner), whose guitar-picking ambitions are driving him to California for wealth and fame. The steadfast lover of Novalee’s life is Forney Hall (James Frain) whose desire for her is obvious and unexpressed. And finally there is her perpetually pregnant best friend named Lexie (Ashley Judd) whose desire for a husband with a good car makes her vulnerable to the lecherous scoundrels her beauty attracts.
A glaring weakness within the film is the absence of authentic Christian community. This is all the more obvious because its setting of Oklahoma is in the heart of the Bible belt. Though the vast majority of Oklahomans go to church several times a week, no one in this film ever darkens the doors of a sanctuary. In addition to this omission of a positive religious image, there is a stereotypic insult of Christianity by the inclusion of a “Midnight, Mississippi” Bible-thumping couple who come all the way to Oklahoma to pronounce Novalee’s unwed birth as an “abomination.” Though undoubtedly intended to be humorous, it is neither funny nor appropriate.
The positive spirituality of the film is expressed with an Alcoholics Anonymous authenticity presented in the loving care of Sister Husband. Her offer of her home to Novalee is given with such a respect for her dignity and a non-judgmental acceptance that Novalee and her daughter quickly become members of the family rather than homeless outcasts.
This hospitality allows Novalee to shine. Transforming from a weak woman who allows herself to be abused by her boyfriend, Novalee soon realizes that she is a beautiful woman worthy of the love she seeks.
But this is not an easy awareness. When her mother, Lil (Sally Field), shows up after her televised fame for giving birth in a WalMart, she only rips Novalee off of the $500 WalMart’s owner had given her, thus abandoning her a second time.
When Forney begins to show Novalee attention, she feels unworthy of his love, in spite of his eccentricities.
The heir of a wealthy Massachusetts family, Forney was in Oklahoma to fulfill a promise he had made to his mentally-ill sister to take care of her and not institutionalize her. Though he has surrendered his dream of becoming a history teacher, Forney is a brilliant and sensitive person of a higher social and educational class than Novalee.
Though we won’t divulge the events which finally impact their relationship, the central moral of the story is presented in compelling symbolism: The heart flourishes when a person is unconditionally loved.
This message is also seen in the marriage of beautiful Lexie to the town’s bald exterminator and their joyful joining of their many children.
“Where the Heart Is” presents a modern American fable about the opportunity of every person from every station of life and various personal sins and shortcomings to find love and joy. Though incomplete in its guidance of how one finds such completion, it can be a hopeful encouragement for making the journey.