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Movie review of Where the Heart Is

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What a relief! After too many disposable films about vexed middle-class urban professionals comes funny, fresh and reassuring "Where the Heart Is."

The $15 million movie, set in Oklahoma, shot in Austin and based on Billie Letts' best seller, is a little gem. Not a glittering Tinseltown zircon but a working-class opal shooting glints of human decency and wit.

In a role galaxies far away from Queen Amidala, Natalie Portman is pregnant Tennessee naif Novalee Nation, 17, whose no-good boyfriend dumps her at a Wal-Mart when she makes a comfort stop.

Broke, alone and clueless, she lives in the store, borrowing food and supplies from its shelves, until the contractions begin.

After giving birth on the floor, Novalee and her baby become overnight celebs and, more important, members of a makeshift family in an eccentric community.

Some people talk about family values, but Matt Williams, co-creator of "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne," has made a movie about them. Not the blood-ties kind, but the bonds that exist when ordinary people open up their hearts to each other.

Sure, there's some sugary hokum, but there's also Ashley Judd as a jokey man-junkie who names her kids for snack foods and Stockard Channing as Sister Husband, assuring a cop that she and her old boyfriend are all right: "We're alcoholics," she says. "We're generally just satisfied to hurt ourselves."

As the homeless teen, Ms. Portman is breathtakingly lovely. The director says she arrived on the set a girl and left (for her freshman year at Harvard) a woman. The same thing happens on-screen. As Novalee's surrogate big sister, Ms. Judd is a modern Mae West with exquisite comic timing.

For his feature directing debut, Mr. Williams put together an equally strong, mostly female, cast that includes Sally Field as Novalee's tough, self-seeking mom, Joan Cusack as a take-no-prisoners Nashville agent and Waxahachie moppet Mackenzie Fitzgerald as Novalee's daughter Americus.

Britisher James Frain, Emily Watson's husband in Hilary and Jackie, underplays a lonely librarian in love with Novalee while Dylan Bruno ("Saving Private Ryan") makes a believable rat-fink.

Keith David ("There's Something About Mary") does his usual solid job as a photographer who sets Novalee on a new path, and Dallas' Bob Coonrod appeals as a kind exterminator.

San Antonio native Paul Peters ("American Pie") designed the downhome production. British cinematographer Richard Greatrex ("Shakespeare in Love") gives it a bright, sun-washed look. Melinda Eshelman ("Office Space") designed the unobtrusive (meaning they're fitting) modest costumes, and Mason Daring, who scores for John Sayles, did the country soundtrack.

If it doesn't do the elephant-in-toe-shoes routine that dooms most small films in the marketing hands of a big studio, 20th Century Fox could have a spring hit on its hands.

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