Anywhere but Here

“Anywhere but Here” is a movie about a teen-age girl who has to help her mom grow up.

Films in which the parent is more irresponsible than the child have been done before, but this one manages to seem fresh and realistic, thanks to earnest and genuine performances from Natalie Portman as the teen-ager, Ann, and Susan Sarandon as her mom, Adele.

The movie starts with the two of them driving from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills. Adele, dressed too young for her age and full of blind optimism, wants to get out of the dead-end town she grew up in, and she’s taking her daughter with her. (Seems mom wants her girl to be an actress, though Ann herself has no such ambitions.)

Adele gets a job in the Los Angeles School District, and Ann tries in vain to adjust to life away from everything she’s ever known. She alternately hates her mother and gets along with her, all the while struggling to find something stable in life to hold onto.

Portman’s performance is wrenching and powerful, as one by one Ann’s chances for a “normal” life slip away. Watch her search for her father, who abandoned the family years ago. Watch her lose her extended family and friends. Watch her get more and more desperate for understanding, culminating in a love scene with a boy named Peter (Corbin Allred) that is at once awkward, hilarious and poignant.

In fact, that’s the whole movie: funny one minute, making you cry right along with the often-crying Ann the next.

Sarandon does wonders with her character, too, though she is not quite as fleshed-out as Ann. Adele, despite being flighty, impulsive and irrational, never seems like a villain who is ruining her daughter’s life. Certain incidents that point up her own self-delusion, as well as her love for her daughter, make her nearly as sympathetic as Ann.

“Anywhere but Here” is almost perfect, but not quite. There is little sense of time when the film opens, as Adele dresses out of style and their car is old. (We eventually figure out we’re in the ’90s.) And the bittersweet ending doesn’t seem quite right. Ann has been stripped down to nothing, emotionally, and we expect she will be rebuilt, but the final scenes don’t necessarily indicate that. One senses that logically, everything will be OK for her now, but we don’t quite FEEL it the way we felt her loneliness before. It’s like the pendulum has swung all the way to one side without swinging sufficiently to the other side, too.

Still, the film is warm and wonderful, relying on the strengths of its powerful actresses to engage the audience from start to finish.

B+ (; PG-13, sex-related material.)