You don’t have to ask where the heart is in this movie – it’s all heart. As you might expect from a movie based on an Oprah book and starring several of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, this is a chick flick that is as yummy as eating bon-bons in a bubble bath.
All of the elements are there — a plucky heroine with adversity to overcome; a love interest who is cute, patient, and endlessly devoted, and who completely adores the heroine’s daughter; an abashed ex-love interest to realize the error of his ways; and an assortment of women friends, also endlessly devoted, to support and be supported, and everyone just as colorful and quirky as can be. If you loved Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, grab some popcorn and a handkerchief and settle in for another juicy classic in that genre. (Why is it, by the way, that these movies always take place in the rural South? Aren’t there ever any colorful and quirky and endlessly devoted people anywhere else?)
Natalie Portman plays Novalee Nation, a pregnant 17-year-old abandoned at a Wal-Mart by her boyfriend. She moves into the Wal-Mart, keeping careful track of everything she takes, and becomes something of a sensation when she ends up having the baby in the store.
Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), a dotty but affectionate recovering alcoholic, takes her in, with the baby. Novalee makes two other friends — Lexie (Ashley Judd), a kind-hearted nurse who is always looking for Mr. Right but finding herself pregnant instead, and Forney (James Frain) a brilliant librarian with a sad secret.
Novalee and her friends cope with tragedy and learn to “let go of what’s gone and hold on like hell to what they’ve got.” They acknowledge the sadness and unfairness and meanness in life, but they “hold on to the goodness and pass it on.” Novalee and Lexie also have to learn to acknowledge that they deserve to be loved and cared for. Lexie finds out that because a man drives a Buick does not make him a winner. The winner is the man who traded a fabulous car to get custody of his stepchild. Novalee learns that she does not have to endure hardship as punishment for her failings, and that she is good enough for the man she loves.
This movie is worth seeing just to watch five of the finest actresses in movies. Natalie Portman is radiant as Novalee, and it is a pleasure to see her bloom before our eyes. Ashley Judd is delicious as Lexie, casually explaining how she named her children after snack foods and lighting up over each new husband prospect. And then she is heart-wrenching when she must deal with the unthinkable. Joan Cusack is sensational as a music promoter who has seen it all and has no illusions. Sally Fields contributes a magnificent cameo as Novalee’s wayward mother. Just the way she smokes a cigarette tells us everything about her life. And Stockard Channing makes us see how Sister Husband’s life may have left her a little addled on minor details, but utterly clear about the important things.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and that Novalee and Lexie have children without being married. Sister Husband prays for forgiveness for “fornication.” Women have sex with men who abandon them. One character has sex with someone who has suffered a loss, and the implication is that this is a form of comfort. A character abuses drugs and alcohol, and three others are alcoholics (two recovering). One character is killed and two others are badly injured. A man attempts to molest two children (off-screen).
Families who see this movie should talk about one character’s view that people lie because they are “scared or crazy or just mean,” about another character’s statement that “home is where they catch you when you fall” and about what makes it possible for some people to survive deprivation and tragedy. They should also talk about what made it difficult for Lexie and Novalee to accept love from good men. And they should talk about the extraordinary kindness the characters show each other, particularly the thoughtful way that Sister Husband invites Novalee and her baby to live with her, making it sound as though Novalee is doing her the favor.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias.