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Movie Review

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Novalee Nation, a sweet, attractive, superstitious and very pregnant Tennessee trailer-park teen about to embark on a cross-country search for the American dream with the father of her child, a skirt-chasing weasel named Willy Jack Pickens. "I’ve never lived anyplace that didn’t have wheels under it," the naïve Novalle drawls as she longs for California sunsets and chocolate milk. During a potty break at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, Willy Jack abandons his girlfriend. Dumped and stranded, Novalee takes shelter by night in the discount store and by day meets a number of kind, quirky strangers including Forney Hull (who cares for his bed-ridden sister, the town librarian), a promiscuous hospital worker named Lexie Coop, and Sister Husband, a pseudo-religious woman who—after Novalee gives birth on the floor of Wal-Mart—eventually invites the unwed mom to live with her. As the years pass, the gracious Novalee builds meaningful relationships while a subplot finds Willy Jack pursuing a post-prison career in country music. The ensuing soap opera involves Novalee and her colorful friends enduring trials while the heroine sorts through her feelings for Forney.

Positive Elements: After a lifetime of bad romantic choices, both Lexie and Novalee realize that true love requires a man of character, not just one who can fill out a pair of jeans or has a fancy car (shallowness carries a price). Forney cares sacrificially for his sister and shows warmth to Novalee and her daughter (he jumps through a plate-glass window to help Novalee deliver her baby). Sister Husband gives of herself to Novalee during the teen’s time of crisis. Lexie and Novalee support one another with a true spirit of friendship. Novalee pulls herself up by her bootstraps, learning skills and working hard to rise above her circumstances. Novalee also has a forgiving spirit, taking hard knocks in stride and believing that in everyone there’s both good and bad. There’s a closing homily about the need to be honest about one’s feelings.

Spiritual Content: Although Sister Husband makes Christian statements ("The Lord gives us obstacles") and prays at mealtime, she believes reading too much of the Bible is a bad idea because it breeds confusion. And her grace always ends with a flip confession of the latest fornication committed with her elderly gentleman friend, Mr. Sprock, "on this very table." While reading her fan mail in the hospital, Novalee (the instant-celebrity mother of the Wal-Mart baby) comes across a mean-spirited letter from a Christian who condemns her for her sin and calls her child an "abomination." A zealous religious couple seek to convert Novalee and, when rebuffed by Sister Husband, kidnap the baby, leave a Bible in the crib, and eventually abandon the infant in a local nativity display. In the filmmaker’s world, religious people are either self-righteous and nasty, or generous and morally adrift.

Sexual Content: The sexual ethics conveyed here are pitiful. Even after her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Novalee has sex (implied) with a hunky gas station attendant and expresses relief that she’s not pregnant again. She also has premarital sex with Forney (the two are shown in bed together). Meanwhile, Lexie has children by numerous men, never seeming to learn from her mistakes. She and Novalee have a frank discussion of one man’s sterility and, on another occasion, swap sexual innuendoes. The sleazy Willy Jack pursues music groupies, underage women (a female hitch-hiker who robbed a convenience store) and even offers himself to his record producer. In a heavy revelation, Lexie describes walking in on her latest boyfriend only to find him attempting to molest her kids.

Violent Content: Lexie is shown battered and bruised after her confrontation with the pedophile. A woman is physically thrown out of a hotel room and a sexual proposition earns Willy Jack a punch in the nose. A violent tornado creates tense moments as Novalee and her now 2-year-old daughter battle the elements. Mama Lil grabs an orderly by the crotch to make a point.

Crude or Profane Language: Three dozen profanities include one f-word and about 10 blasphemous uses of God’s/Jesus’ name. Sally Field and Joan Cusack both make unflattering cameos as obnoxious, unlikable women who cuss up a storm in their brief screen time.

Drug and Alcohol Content: Willy Jack gets drunk before wandering onto the train tracks. Some social drinking. Sister Husband is a recovering alcoholic, as is a softball-playing lawyer.

Other Negative Elements: Novalee puts stock in numerology, expressing a fear of the number five. Sure enough, tragic things tend to happen on dates and anniversaries containing the number five. When the chain-smoking Mama Lil (who left home for the postman years earlier) shows up unexpectedly at Novalee’s bedside, she steals $500 from her daughter and grandchild under the guise of getting them both a place to stay.

Summary: A teenager gives birth in a Wal-Mart. A guy loses his legs after being run over by a train. A woman dies during a twister. A young mother is beaten up by a boyfriend after she interrupts him trying to molest her children. If this sounds like southern dysfunction one step removed from Jerry Springer, it is. The screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers, Splash, Multiplicity, A League of Their Own) have traded in their light-hearted commentary and sense of humor for an unappealing character study heavy on amoral pathos. They at least could have cast Jeff Foxworthy to provide some comic relief.

To teenage boys, this manipulative story akin to Hope Floats and Steel Magnolias will be about as appealing as a teddy-bear tea party. Many girls, however, view peer Portman as a role model and will get mixed messages from Novalee. Overall, the healthy sentiments aren’t worth the character flaws.

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Natalie Portman as Novalee Nation; Ashley Judd as Lexie Coop; James Frain as Forney Hull; Stockard Channing as Sister Husband; Dylan Bruno as Willy Jack Pickens; Joan Cusack as Ruth Meyers; Sally Field as Mama Lil


Matt Williams ( )


20th Century Fox



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Bob Smithouser

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