AT FIRST blush, a movie about a wacky, life-affirming mom (played by Susan Sarandon) who drags her unwilling, sullen daughter (Natalie Portman) to California to start a new life, well, it feels a little hackneyed.
But "Anywhere But Here" keeps a frisky step or two ahead of the cliches, thanks to Sarandon's charming performance; and there's a warmly harmonic convergence among scriptwriter Alvin Sargent (adapting Mona Simpson's novel), director Wayne Wang and cinematographer Roger Deakins. The result: a movie of lightly amusing moments that sneak up and surprise you, burnished with Deakins's amber images of Los Angeles, shot usually in deep afternoon.
Sarandon is Adele August, a single mother who believes that moving to Beverly Hills is the only psychic cure for her dismal life in Bay City, Wis. Despite the protestations of family and friends, Adele packs her 14-year-old daughter Ann (Portman) and their belongings into a secondhand Mercedes and heads west. Nothing is getting in her way, except maybe her daughter.
Ann -- who also narrates part of the story -- has a special connection with her cousin Benny (Shawn Hatosy) and loves her relatives, no matter how small town and dysfunctional they might be. She even misses the Plymouth they left behind. So she spends most of her Los Angeles sojourn in the dumps, scowling and snarling with resentment.
On her first day at school in Beverly Hills, Ann stares at the array of SoCal blondes standing in front of the building.
"I feel like I'm going to the beach," she says with disgust.
"The intelligent girls are inside," says her mother sweetly.
Little does Ann know what this story is really about -- establishing a link with the enemy Herself: Mom.
Adele's obsession is virtually impregnable. Even though she settles for a job as a teacher in a scary neighborhood, Adele never forgets the beautiful life she has in her head.
On a drive with Ann through a particularly exclusive neighborhood one day, she pulls into a beautiful driveway and crashes an invitation-only "open house." This impossibly lavish house is exactly what she wants.
The real estate agent is no match for Adele's will. Before long, Adele -- feigning an offhanded richness -- chats with the owner, referring to Ann as her daughter "Heather."
Meanwhile, Ann goes upstairs to sneak a quick call to Benny.
"Heather? Heather Ann?" coos her mother from downstairs.
There are many joys and calamities ahead as mother and daughter adjust to the West Coast and each other, including Adele's whirlwind liaison with beach boytoy Josh Spritzer (Hart Bochner), a visit from Benny and Ann's potentially divisive urge to get into a good New England college.
But even though their apartment is prone to sudden darkness when Adele doesn't pay the electricity bill, Ann is developing a certain appreciation for her mother's chutzpah.
Portman, whose job is to frown and complain for most of the movie, does as well as her role allows. But Sarandon is the movie's most enduring pleasure, strutting around in unflattering housewife stretch pants but exuding such brazen self confidence, it's enough to persuade you she's sexy, funny and alive.
ANYWHERE BUT HERE (PG-13, 113 minutes) -- Contains strong language and mild sexual situations. Area theaters.