Written by Mona Simpson and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Wayne Wang
Being the mother of a teenager is never easy. As is often the case, mothers and teenage girls tend to clash often and sometimes quite brutally. Anywhere But Here is one of those movies that gives me some comfort. I can point to the mother in the film and feel good that I am not quite as bad as her. At the same time, I know that in my daughter’s eyes it doesn’t matter at times.
Natalie Portman is Anne and Susan Sarandon is her mother, Adele, traveling from Bay City, Wisconsin to California. There’s some bad blood between them largely because of Adele’s history – Anne’s father left them in the middle of the night. Adele left the man who was Anne’s stepfather and went through an apparent messy divorce.
The movie is told pretty much from the perspective of Anne, who longs to be back in Bay City with her cousin, Benny, whom with she spent the majority of her time and her friends in the familiar setting. She copes with a mother who is totally wrapped up in herself in addition to seeming to be somewhat unbalanced mentally. This could be due to the fact that it seems to be Anne’s perspective and what teenager (especially teenage girls) don’t at some time think their mother is a complete flake.
In some ways, the roles have been reversed. Adele is the flighty one and Anne often has to rely on herself when she should have some emotional support and stability in her life. Adele seems to look at her daughter more like a buddy or girlfriend with whom she can share secrets, rather than behave as a mother. The movie takes place over a few years during which their life in California takes some twists and turns. It’s a tumultuous ride for the two, Anne’s made moreso by the emotional weight her mother often places on her young shoulders.
That is the crux of the film. Adele had grown to need Anne in her life to support her emotionally, and it’s not a role a mother should place on a daughter. It’s only a final act of true love when Adele finally manages to find the emotional wherewithal to let her daughter go into the world and forge a life on her own rather than remain with an emotional needy mother that gives me hope. Adele could have chosen to emotionally tie her daughter to her for all eternity and been completely selfish. It takes a while, but she finally commits one true act of unselfish, motherly love.
Sarandon’s performance is really great as the flaky Adele. She’s a study in contrasts as she keeps telling her daughter she’s doing what she does to make Anne’s life better, while at the same time her actions result in the opposite. Just the act of leaving the step-father Anne has grown to love so much is enough to make me question her motivations as a parent. There seems to be no other reason for the separation except he wasn’t giving Adele and “exciting” enough life, and she feels the grass is greener elsewhere. It never seems to enter her mind about what effect any of her actions will have on her daughter.
Watching her in various situations and conflicts I got the idea that Adele is not really a suitable parent for Anne, but she loves the girl to the best of her ability. She’s a woman who thinks the whole world has done her wrong and there’s something more out there for her, if only she’s at the right place at the right time to grab it. She’s annoying and yet at times I could sympathize with her. Much of what’s motivating her truly seems beyond her control at times.
Natalie Portman is perfect at Anne. Most teenagers at one time or another think their lives would be better without the parents they have or without parents at all. The only problem is in Anne’s case, she might be right. Anne often looks on at her mother with disdain and at times a complete lack of sympathy as a typical teenage would. Portman captures the nuances of this perfectly with her facial expressions and body language, especially when she is recoiling for a particularly absurd utterance on Adele’s part. Portman can convey a whole spectrum of emotions without uttering a word, and the director of the film, Wayne Wang, makes the most of her in this role. Some of the best scenes are the ones in which she doesn’t say a thing and yet I knew exactly what was going on in her head.
I also enjoyed the scenes between Portman’s Anne and her cousin Benny, portrayed by Shawn Hatosy. In particular, when he visits her in Los Angeles and is among her friends there he is relaxed and so is she. She is almost completely transformed from the girl who is so sullen and angry at the prospect of remaining where her mother is. These refreshing moments when Anne is not just the typical brooding teenager keep the film from being stuck on the same note. It shows Anne’s potential if only she can get out from under the suffocating emotional neediness that her mother often lays on her.
Although there are no real surprises in the story, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I tried to get my teenage daughter to watch it with me, but I think she picked it up and watched it when she could be alone – typical.
If you’ve ever had a daughter who’s been completely embarrassed by the fact that you know how and can do The Time Warp, Anywhere But Here serves as a reminder that it can be a whole lot worse.
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