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by: Scott Renshaw

For a long time during Anywhere But Here, my attention was fixed somewhere I didn't quite expect. Relationship dramas like this tend to be all about character and performance -- every scene is an actor's scene, every moment is an actor's moment. But to my surprise, I became fascinated with the way the film looked. In this tale of a free-spirited single mom named Adele August (Susan Sarandon) who moves herself and her reluctant 14-year-old daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills, cinematographer Roger Deakins does something cinematographers rarely do in film: he makes Los Angeles look thoroughly unattractive. The grainy film stock renders everything slightly fuzzy; the bleached colors suck the golden glow out of Tinseltown. In a film about a woman who expects her dreams to come true when she moves to a city of dreams, it becomes compelling to watch it through Ann's eyes as a dreary and very ordinary place.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Deakins or to the craft of cinematography when I say that, even at the time, I knew Anywhere But Here couldn't have been working the way it was supposed to if I was paying attention to the choice of film stock. This is, after all, a relationship story and a character study, an exploration of those complex, contentious years when mothers and daughters alternately hate each other and are each other's best friends. It's been done before, of course -- even the kooky mother and more stable daughter has been done before, in films like Mermaids -- but solid writing and strong performances can often counteract familiarity.

Anywhere But Here does come through with the strong performances. Sarandon finds just the right balance between effervescence and irresponsibility, her yearning for a better life always winding up just this side of real life. Portman continues to show strong chops for a young actress, navigating a similarly complicated path between devotion to her mother and intense resentment. Their scenes together effectively capture the perpetual tension between Ann and Adele, and do a particularly nice job of showing Ann's frustration at being the real grown-up of the two while never turning her into a wise-ass. There's never a moment when the nuances of their relationship aren't front and center.

And that may be why Anywhere But Here feels so claustrophobic and artificial. Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and screenwriter Alvin Sargent are so intensely focused on Ann and Adele that there's virtually no context for their lives. We see Ann walking uncomfortably through Beverly Hills High on her first day of school, but there's no sense of her struggle before she's giggling away with girlfriends; a few scattered scenes of Adele in her job as a speech pathologist/therapist provides no sense for why this flighty woman ever got into a field that demands so much patience. Most disappointing, there's far too little background on their lives in Wisconsin for us to understand why Adele wants to leave and Ann wants to stay, and far too little development of the potentially intriguing relationship between Ann and her almost-kissing-cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy). There's really not a single strong supporting character Anywhere But Here can bounce off of. It's no wonder these two drive each other crazy -- they've been hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world.

One could argue that such an isolated, in-each-other's-face relationship is precisely the point of Anywhere But Here -- that Ann and Adele have nothing in the world but each other, crazy-making as they may be to each other. That doesn't make it any easier to spend two hours with them -- and only them -- and their conflicts, well-acted though they may be. I found myself straining for something or someone else to think about every once in a while: the kindly cop (Michael Milhoan) who offers words of wisdom for both Ann and


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