Anywhere But Here: Wayne Wang’s Mother-Daughter Melodrama, Starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman

Centering on the turbulent but loving relationship between a single mother and her rebellious teenage daughter, Wayne Wang’s Anywhere But Here is a sumptuously crafted but an extremely old-fashioned comedy-drama, made in the manner of Hollywood’s weepies of yesteryear.

Natalie Portman, who’s rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished young actresses, lends excellent support to Susan Sarandon, as her eccentric, slightly crazy but ultimately self-sacrificing mother.

Targeted for the same audiences who saw Stepmom, Sarandon’s last foray into maternal fare, this heartfelt film, which exploits two of Hollywood’s most reliable formats–the road movie and the inter-generational meller–should do above mid-range numbers, somewhere between the B.O. of The Joy Luck Club (directed by Wang in 1993) and Stepmom.

As he showed in The Joy Luck Club and in a number of his Asian-American films (specifically Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart), Wang’s sensitive, humanistic approach is most suitable for weepies about women. Though Anywhere But Here is nominally set in 1995, and based on Mona Simpson’s 1986 novel, a good deal of the film registers as an updated version of Stella Dallas, the King Vidor version, with Sarandon playing a crude working-class woman who wears the same kind of tawdry clothes that Barbara Stanwyck did in 1937.

Inevitable comparisons will also be made with Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Gavin O’Connor’s upcoming Tumbleweeds (both more interesting pictures), moralistic sagas that revolve around “irresponsible” or immature middle-age women who hit the road with their teenage-children in search for a better, more meaningful life.

In the first scene, Adele (Sarandon) and her 14-year old child Ann (Portman) are zooming in their 1978 Mercedes down the highway, heading toward the promised paradise of Beverly Hills. Ann is being moved against her will out of Bay City, Wisconsin, because her mom can’t stand the stifling effects of this provincial town on them. Through endless bickering–and brief flashbacks–crucial background is conveyed: How Ann has never met her Egyptian biological father, how Adele had walked out on Ann’s stepfather, how the big car was recklessly bought, etc.

Ann is furious at having to leave the cozy family and social life she enjoyed in Bay City with her grandma Lillian (Eileen Ryan), cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy), and intimate friends. Adele, in contrast, is determined to move away from what she feels is a hopeless, unexciting life. While not quite a stage mother, Adele pushes her daughter into acting, truly hoping that life in sunny Los Angeles will fulfill her long-cherished dreams.

Their first stop is the Beverly Hills Hotel, a symbol of Adele’s quest, only to realize they can’t afford it; instead, they settle into a cheap Travelodge motel. A random meeting with a real estate agent, Gail (Caroline Aaron) helps them gain a nicer but ordinary apartment in B. Hills. In the next year, they move around from one shabby place to another.

Adele begins working as a schoolteacher, but the job doesn’t last long. Whenever she’s down, she forces Ann to go out shopping or eat in an expensive restaurant. The logic of the narrative is based on a role-reversal: Ann is more realistic and pragmatic than her flighty mom. Indeed, Ann is quicker to realize than her mother’s one-night stand with a beau, Josh (Hart Bochner), is just that, despite Adele’s numerous calls to him and anticipation that he’ll take her out to the opera.

Ann goes through a painful coming of age, underlined by her studying in a new school and her eager desire to meet her real father. In a touching scene, Ann calls her dad, but he misperceives her gesture as a request for money. Turning point in the central relationship occurs when Adele sneaks into an audition that she had forced upon Ann and shockingly observes how Ann delivers a monologue that emulates her very own words and gestures.

Throughout, Alvin Sargent’s “new” scenario recalls quintessential scenes and characters from Hollywood’s chestnuts. The whole motif of a daughter embarrassed by her mom’s lewd public behavior and tasteless clothes recall Stella Dallas. The scene in which Sarandon is eagerly waiting for her beau to call echoes (in reverse) the scene in Stella Dallas in which no one shows up for the daughter’s birthday. The tough character of real estate Gail, who becomes Adele’s buddy, suggests the roles played by Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce and by Diane Ladd in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

The first hour is boring and unexciting, and Sarandon’s broad rendition in what’s one of her least subtle performances, makes the material unbearably familiar. However, unlike most mainstream pics, this narrative improves as it unfolds, and the tension between mom and daughter, when the latter decides to attend an East Coast college, is particularly well handled.

Even so, it may be telling that some of the most emotionally honest scenes depict the interactions between Ann and other young characters. There’s a priceless scene, in which Ann and Benny candidly talk about their feelings and sexuality; this makes Benny’s later death in an accident all the more devastating. There are also several deftly and humorously observed scenes in which Ann is courted by a handsome classmate, Ted (Ray Baker).

Sarandon’s acting gets more multi-shaded and refined in the last reel, but the revelation here is Portman, whose casting was reportedly Sarandon’s condition to make the movie. With half a dozen roles to her credit, Portman, who looks very attractive, is a natural performer who brings rough edges to any role she plays–the movie is inconceivable without her.

Wang’s staging is less astute than his normal standard, but he directs with clarity, stressing those obvious, crowd-pleasing moments that are bound to send many viewers to their hankies. This kind of manipulation, with at least four scenes in which the protagonists themselves burst out crying, has always been integral to the genre. Pic’s main modernist touch is Roger Deakins’ crisp, wide-screen lensing, which elevates the story at least two notches above the conventional, TV-like sensibility of its source material.