With any lesser actresses than Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman in the lead roles, the turbulent mother-daughter relationship at the center of "Anywhere But Here" might be little more than fodder for another Lifetime Channel movie -- especially with such a pathetic title.
In fact, I can't imagine what drew director Wayne Wang ("Smoke," "The Joy Luck Club") to what on paper must have looked like a rather prosaic project about a middle-aged woman, desperate for a fresh start, dragging her inimical teenager from Wisconsin to Los Angeles in the hopes of creating a fulfilling and glamorous new life.
But Wang's ability to extract vitality and depth from even the most obvious female roles (a hooker in his "Chinese Box" became a symbol of Hong Kong at the end of English rule) begets such effortlessly extraordinary performances from his stars that this seemingly pedestrian story will ring true for anyone who is now or has ever been a teenage girl embarrassed and imposed upon by her mother. (Frankly, there isn't much here for guys, I'm afraid.)
Sarandon lends history and intricacy to the barely-veiled neuroses of her falsely chipper, ego-battered single mom, who projects all her unfulfilled ambitions onto her irked offspring. Portman, in turn, lends such weight and dimension to her character's piercing adolescent angst that she transcends the cookie-cutter cinema teen lurking in the script.
The story is essentially a roller-coaster of been there-done that emotional peaks and valleys -- including Sarandon's romantic desperation that drives men away and Portman's abandonment issues (regarding her father) and frustrated efforts to make her mother acknowledge that she's growing up.
But the movie's vivid character details -- the series of cheap, unfurnished flats the twosome live in while Sarandon works low-paying jobs, the fact that she honestly thinks she can pass for Beverly Hills elite because she drives a 1974 Mercedes -- are what these actresses latch on to in order to make their portrayals so unexpectedly engrossing.
"Anywhere But Here" is vexed by a superfluous voice-over provided by Portman and occasional lapses in authenticity, especially when it comes to Portman's budding sexuality (she and boy she likes act more like 13-year-olds than the high school seniors they play). But it's nothing these sublimely natural actresses can't handle.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th November 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $18.7M
Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Production compaines: Fox 2000 Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Fresh: 57 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: Wayne Wang
Starring: Susan Sarandon as Adele August, Natalie Portman as Ann August, Hart Bochner as Josh Spritzer, Eileen Ryan as Lillian, Ray Baker as Ted, John Diehl as Jimmy, Shawn Hatosy as Benny, Bonnie Bedelia as Carol, Faran Tahir as Hisham Badir, Shishir Kurup as Hisham Badir (voice)