Her underwritten role and over-elaborate makeup as Queen Amidala in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace hid the talent and beauty of Natalie Portman. Now, as Ann August — a teenager trying to stabilize her divorced, wildcat mom, Adele (Susan Sarandon) — Portman, 18, brings her light out from under George Lucas' bushel. She is smart, funny, luminous and rigorously unsentimental.
Would that the same could be said of her tear-jerking movie. Anywhere but Here, directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) from a 1986 best seller by Mona Simpson, is formula mother-brat stuff, treading territory more indelibly marked by Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Gavin O'Connor's upcoming Tumbleweeds. It's only the deft teamwork of Portman and Sarandon that keeps triteness at bay.
What there is of a plot takes Ann and Adele from small-town Wisconsin to the promised land of California, where Adele figures Ann can become a star. Never mind that Ann doesn't want to act or leave her pals, especially her horny cousin Benny (the appealing Shawn Hatosy). And never mind that Adele's teaching job barely covers the rent on a tiny Beverly Hills apartment.
Adele misguidedly pins her hopes on Josh (Hart Bochner), a hunk orthodontist. "He's more than a dentist," she tells Ann. "He's writing a screenplay." Ann handles her sexual awakening with a twist: She makes her boyfriend, Peter (Corbin Allred), strip. But then the comedy gives way to tears, buckets of them, and you start wishing you were anywhere but here — preferably at last year's far funnier Slums of Beverly Hills.