There are certain phrases that inspire an instinctive dread in moviegoers: "Tarantino-esque"; "big in France"; "starring Andy Garcia." But the mother of them all is "chick flick."
"Anywhere But Here" is every inch a chick flick, and it has the predictable array of emotional touchstones that make movies of the genre so instinctively dreadful. There's fighting, crying, hugging and a scene where the characters sing along to the radio in a triumphant, life-affirming way. To make matters worse, there's not a single moment that hasn't been done before in some other movie.
But other movies don't have Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, who turn "Anywhere But Here" into a tolerable chick flick. Based on Mona Simpson's semi-autobiographical novel, the film tells a familiar story about a flaky, free-spirited mom and her sensible, frequently embarrassed daughter.
Early on, Adele August (Sarandon) and her 14-year-old, Ann ("The Phantom Menace's" Portman), are high-tailing it out of Wisconsin in a spiffy secondhand Mercedes. Adele has had it with small-town Midwestern life, her ordinary, salt-of-the-earth family and her sensible second husband. Vowing not to wind up dying in Bay City -- a fate she considers far worse than dying itself -- she's headed for the promised land of Los Angeles.
Ann sulkily refers to their adventure as "kidnapping." She has good reason to be resentful. Her mom is forcibly dragging her from the only life she's ever known, and she's now entirely at the mercy of a caretaker who doesn't know much about taking care of anybody.
We know immediately from Adele's wardrobe of tight pants and kooky sunglasses from the House of Irresponsible Mothers superstore (the same place Melanie Griffith shopped in "Crazy in Alabama") that she seriously doesn't have her shit together. She forgets to pay the electric bill, accumulates parking tickets like they were Pokimon cards and thinks she can solve any mother-daughter conflict by dragging Ann out for a scoop of Baskin-Robbins.
This being a chick flick, Adele's behavior is a source of ongoing emotional pain for Ann, who spends a fair amount of the movie snuffling back or letting loose trickles of tears. The pain sorrows Adele, and before you know it everybody's crying. At least until they make up and start hugging and laughing in a life-affirming way again. This goes on for a span of three years of the characters' lives, or two hours of actual chair time for the viewer.
For all the fussing and the sobbing, very little actually happens in "Anywhere But Here." If it weren't for the gentle, confident work of its director and stars, the movie could easily be completely unbearable. But there's a sweet alchemy at work here, a process that changes the material to more than maternal sob-story shtick.
Director Wayne Wang, best known for "The Joy Luck Club," has a knack for meandering, for constructing little vignettes that are lovely by themselves even if they don't exactly add up to a cohesive narrative. He sends Adele and Ann into situations that seem meant solely to showcase their beauty and vulnerability, letting them blaze nervously down the open road or stare sleepily at the ocean while sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups. And he's terrific at subtle ways of conveying their California evolution. As Ann changes from a sulky, baggy-pants-wearing youngster to a college-bound woman, Adele ditches her eccentric retro-hooker look for West Coast casual. At the same time, both women reflect their characters' deepening sense of being at ease in their own skins.
But even without the scenery and wardrobe changes, the film's two leads are gifted enough to be convincing, even when they're blurting out hackneyed dialogue and playing yet another trembling-lips and misty-eyes moment. As the mother who never grew up, Sarandon has the more challenging job of making an insufferable character likable. Adele is so motivated by her own whims that she wakes up her daughter at dawn to tell her about her dates, and reacts to losing a job by going on a shopping spree.
But Sarandon coaxes something appealing and earthy out of Adele, too, making us understand not just why her first spouse fled and her family is mortified by her, but why husband No. 2 still pines for her even while he's helping her pack her bags and why Ann forgives her histrionics and frivolity. Adele may be a pain in the ass, but her instincts to get herself and her kid out of Wisconsin are ultimately right. And when Sarandon confesses later that her daughter was the reason she was put on Earth, she brims with such heartfelt affection it's as believable as every selfish move that's gone before it.
Sarandon is good, but Portman is astonishing. Unlike any number of actresses her age, she's neither too maudlin nor too plucky. Her Ann is both a petulant wet blanket and a thoughtful, painfully lonely girl fumbling to find herself. Portman knows her character is the soul of the story, and she isn't overreaching about it. She portrays Ann's angst quietly, using her wide, expressive face to convey little ripples of frustration and exasperation. She's the counterpoint to Sarandon's bravado, and she keeps the film from becoming a hammy, anything-you-can-cry-I-can-cry-harder diva fest. When the two women are on screen together (and they almost always are), the familial frisson between them is palpable. Somehow, in playing characters who just can't quite connect, they connect.
Despite its stellar leading ladies, "Anywhere But Here" is still a predictable generation-gap drama. It's as soft and sentimental as an old blanket. Of course, sometimes old blankets are pretty well made. As a maturing single mom and a growing adolescent, Sarandon and Portman's characters are both going through that familiar film device known as the awkward age. The surprise of "Anywhere But Here" is that they manage to do it with a very watchable amount of grace.