Is there any relationship more tortured than the one between parents and children of the same sex? Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, it's all the same twisted rope of love and hate, fear and trust, anger and regret, a thousand tiny secret dramas based on a double dynamic of terror: The parent sees his replacement, the child sees his destiny. Scary prospects both.
What's so good about Wayne Wang's film "Anywhere but Here" is that it apprehends this craziness whole and doesn't attempt to simplify it into some nice primary-color lollipop so that you can say, "Oh, isn't this nice!" It doesn't care about nice. In fact, it hates nice. It simply throws up its hands and says, "Here's the whole damn thing; make of it what you will."
And, of course, it's hard to know what to make of Adele August. She's got the appetites of a 15-year-old, the will of a drill sergeant and the body of a 19-year-old. She's about 47. Adele, slinky and stacked and aware of both, is played by Susan Sarandon, and it's such a pleasure to see her liberated from pieties of pap like "Stepmom." She knows that Adele is cute and hot; she also knows that Adele isn't very nice, and she lets us hate Adele for her occasional bouts of breathtaking selfishness, her casual need to control the world, her romantic self-delusion, her foolishness.
But the person who knows best that Adele isn't nice but is cute and hot is her daughter, Ann, played with gimlet-eyed realism by Natalie Portman. And, of course, it's great to see Portman shorn of the mummifying makeup and that weird dot of lipstick that her role as Princess Whatever in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" required.
And the two performances make a subtler point: that real is much harder than make-believe. In other words, here's a movie in which two human beings (a 47-year-old child and a 15-year-old adult) struggle for dominance and clarity, while inescapably knotted up in hopeless love and shared DNA. Talk about tough! Blowing up spaceships or smearing sentimental treacle all over the landscape, that's easy. Getting the warp and woof of the quotidian, with all its ellipses and hurtful inferences, with its sublimated emotion and unexpressed pain, that's tough! That's so tough it's almost impossible, and ultimate credit devolves to Wang, his two stars, his screenwriter Alvin Sargent (double Oscar winner for "Julia" and "Ordinary People") and the novel by Mona Simpson from which the movie is derived.
It all begins with Wisconsin, as in Not Good Enough. A proto-hippie, Adele had evidently returned to her small town after a failed marriage. She married a decent but dull guy, shared her life with her mom and sister and various decent but dull relations and watched her daughter grow toward Wisconsinfrauhood. But Adele knew one thing: She deserved so much better than the Dairy State. I mean, how could cows get how cool she was? So one day she said: Not good enough. Not good enough. I deserve Beverly Hills.
The movie tracks the anguished consequences of that decision. Adele has decreed that Ann will be an actress, which of course the brainy, talented, repressed Ann cannot stand. It means--ugh!--being noticed! And of course Ann already knows that it's Adele who is already the actress; her whole life is performance, full of grand gestures and entrances so flamboyant they'd put Gloria Swanson to shame.
Adele gets a job as a speech therapist in an inner-city school (she's got a master's in speech), which soon annoys her; Ann begins at Beverly Hills High, where her small-town clothes make her feel even more of a dork. But she's smart and funny and in time she builds friendships. Meanwhile, Adele, with her hopelessly retro eye makeup and miniskirts (she looks like she was designed by Mary Quant in the cool aquamarine of '90s L.A.) tries to assemble a life of her own, to get what she knows she's entitled to.
This involves bad boyfriends ("Mother, don't you get it?" the tough-minded Ann snaps. "He doesn't love you and he's never going to call back"), job crises, deaths in the family (a trip back to Wisconsin), money problems and endless bouts of the blues. All these molecules finally crystallize around the issue of college. Adele wants Ann close by, because, after all, Ann's job is to be her mom's best friend. Ann, of course, wants to be anywhere but here, and that would be Brown University.
Maybe the movie's self-conscious allusion to "Terms of Endearment," the great real-life tear-bringer, is too obvious (it clearly seeks to replicate that film's emotional honesty). But the movie is so closely observed, so funny and so true to the junk that is everybody's real--as opposed to movie--life that it comes to feel like some kind of a miracle.
Anywhere but Here (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and female underwear.
CAPTION: Susan Sarandon as the mom who never grew up and Natalie Portman as her sensible daughter.
CAPTION: Who's the adult? Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon as daughter and mom.