This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Remember that game in school where the teacher would write the first sentence of a story and then pass it around the class? Everybody would write a sentence, but the paper was folded so you could only read the last sentence before yours. "Where the Heart Is" has a screenplay like that, zigging and zagging and wildly careening from one melodramatic development to the next. What halfway holds it together are the performances, which are convincing and deserve a story with a touch more sanity.
The movie is based on a popular novel by Billie Letts, about a 17-year-old unwed mother named Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman), who is abandoned by her no-good boyfriend in a Wal-Mart in Sequoia, Okla., and lives secretly in the store until she gives birth to her child, little Americus. The baby is delivered by the town's substitute librarian, Forney (James Frain), who has been following her, moonstruck, and breaks through the store's plate-glass window as she goes into labor. She finds a home locally with Sister Husband (Stockard Channing) and her partner Mr. Sprock (Richard Jones).
Novalee is lucky to have landed in a town populated exclusively by character actors. Everyone in Sequoia, and indeed everyone in her life, is a salt-of-the-earth, good ol' eccentric, and that surely includes her new best friend Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd), who is always going and getting herself pregnant. When Novalee names her new baby Americus, Lexie is impressed. She names her kids after snacks: Praline, Baby Ruth, etc.
The people in the movie are lovable and sympathetic, and if they live in a world of folksy fantasy, at least it looks like a good place to live. For example, Novalee makes a friend of Moses Whitecotton (Keith David), a photographer in the Wal-Mart, and soon she's exhibiting talent as a gifted photographer. But the characters have to negotiate the plot like runners through a minefield, as one weird and improbable situation after another comes up. At one point, Novalee is about to be sucked up into the funnel cloud of a tornado and clings upside-down to the steps of the storm shelter with the fingertips of one hand while snatching little Americus as the child is about to be blown past her. Uh, huh.