Where the Heart Is is Natalie Portman’s coming-out ball, her debutante movie. The little girl on whom all eyes have focused since Luc Besson’s The Professional and Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls is all grown up and ready for her white gown, corsage and close-up. Until now, Portman has been like an Audrey Hepburn ingénue waiting for that career-making Roman Holiday script. It’s also fair to say that healthy — better make that unhealthy — sectors of the male audience have been waiting for her in much the same way that Karl Malden “waited” for Carroll Baker in Baby Doll, doubled up and made demented by ungovernable paroxysms of guilt-drenched lust.

Portman has always been cunningly positioned, securely ensconced in naif-land yet clearly visible to the slavering pervs on the neighboring island. Many of her roles rely on her combination of teenage alabaster beauty and proto-adult knowingness. On the one hand, we hear of the pseudonymous golden child of the Long Island suburbs, trilingual, frighteningly bright, quivering with what Miss Manners would call “exquisite poise,” and all set for the Ivy League come fall. Then there is what we know of her family’s attempts to preserve a sense of childhood innocence while building her Hollywood career in some pretty adult movies — no mean feat and, to judge by the supremely grounded teenager who appears in interviews, one they’ve pulled off very nicely.

Her new film doesn’t fracture this carefully cultivated persona. There’s none of the po-faced solemnity of her last movie, Anywhere But Here, and, thank God, Portman is subjected to none of the indignities she suffered at the hands of George Lucas’ makeup battalions on Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace. Instead, Where the Heart Is carves out a clear space for her to thrive in, surrounding her with sympathetic co-stars such as Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing and Sally Field, and providing her with a wonderfully slick, likable script by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, from Billie Letts’ picaresque best-seller. Portman plays Novalee Nation, literally barefoot and pregnant when we first meet her, disembarking from her trailer-park home (“I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have wheels under it”) with her redneck grunt boyfriend to make a new start in California. It doesn’t take Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) but five minutes to abandon her at a Wal-Mart in Nowheresville, Oklahoma. She knows no one. She doesn’t have a dime.

But Novalee, semiliterate jailbait though she may be, has bottomless reserves of spunk and resourcefulness. She camps out in Wal-Mart at night, but things turn around when she gives birth to what is dubbed by the tabloids as “The Wal-Mart Baby.” Novalee is then slowly and warmly enclosed in the bosom of this rag-tag little town, as if she and the baby — christened “Americus Nation” — were gifts from the sky. She makes friends with Lexie Coop, nurse and mother of four (Ashley Judd in a meaty supporting role), whose life, despite her wisdom and strength, is all about getting knocked up and knocked about by a series of worthless boyfriends. Novalee is also taken in by Alcoholic Anonymous member Sister Husband (Channing) whose pre-prandial prayers usually culminate with the imprecation “And please, Lord, forgive the fornicatin’ that took place on this here table this very afternoon.”

For the next five years in Novalee’s life, there are thunderstorms, tornadoes, good men, bad men, crazy Christians, more babies (Judd pops them out like a baseball pitching machine), deaths and funerals, tragedy and triumph. Where the Heart Is comes on like a great pre-feminist country-and-western song — Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” meets Dolly Parton’s “Just Because I’m a Woman” spiced up with a smidgen of Ann Peebles’ “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.” Although its lushness and penchant for melodrama are the cinematic equivalent of Billy Sherrill’s syrupy string arrangements for George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich circa 1973, the movie deftly manages to remain sweet without becoming saccharine. But at the heart of Heart lies Portman, whose innocence and aura of purity almost constitute an extra character in this intimate comedy-epic. She plays below her age and intelligence at the start, and by the time it’s over, her Novalee is the wisest naif in Oklahoma, den daughter to a dozen wounded mother figures, sweet as a butterfly, sharper than a wasp. Natalie Portman, welcome to the world.

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