ANYWHERE BUT HERE: Director Wayne Wang, known for family dramas about Chinese Americans that focus on mother-daughter relationships (DIM SUM, THE JOY LUCK CLUB), here adapts Mona Simpson's ANYWHERE BUT HERE, a novel perfectly suited to his talents. Teenage Ann (Natalie Portman) wants a normal life, but her mother, Adele (Susan Sarandon), has her own idea of what is normal. When Adele grows tired of claustrophobic small-town life in Wisconsin, she takes the constantly complaining Ann across the country to Los Angeles to start a new life. Ann, however, doesn't want to go, and her behavior wavers between typical adolescent annoyance to real insight into her mother's character. Much of this comes from the voice-over provided by the adult Ann, who explains it all from her mature point of view. This sentimental story, long on feelings and more feelings, is nicely played, with Sarandon enthusiastic as the eccentric single mother her daughter can't wait to get away from.
GARDEN STATE: Andrew "Large" Largeman (Zach Braff of TV's SCRUBS) is returning home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral. A struggling actor in Los Angeles, he's been living under clouds of medication prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). After drifting through the funeral with the same emotional numbness he's felt for years, he reconnects with old friends Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a grave digger, and Albert (Denis O'Hare), a millionaire who invented noiseless Velcro. In a doctor's office, he meets ebullient Sam (Natalie Portman), an epileptic whose lust for life inspires Andrew to feel things that his medication long denied him. Over the course of four days, he develops feelings for Sam he didn't know he was capable of, and faces up to the resentment his father holds toward him about an accident that happened long ago.
Writer, director, and star Zach Braff makes his debut feature with this off-kilter, unusually smart, self-assured coming-of-age film. GARDEN STATE has a knack for sharp-edged humor, character quirks, and finding lovely imagery in the mundanity of the suburbs. These things combined are abundant evidence that Braff's filmmaking future is filled with limitless promise.
WHERE THE HEART IS: A lighthearted drama about finding your place in the world under the most unlikely circumstances, WHERE THE HEART IS stars Natalie Portman as Novalee Nation, a pregnant young girl who is running away to California with her boyfriend, an aspiring country singer. When he abandons her at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, Novalee has no choice but to stay behind. She lives in the Wal-Mart until the baby comes, and the resulting birth turns her into a celebrity. As the years go by, Novalee continues to live in the small town, and eventually finds herself falling in love with the kindhearted local librarian.