Somewhat against the odds, a compelling performance is given by Natalie Portman, who manages to surmount the busy episodic structure of this unlikely 'chick flick' story, which has been adapted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel from Billie Letts' novel. The director, Matt Williams, making his feature debut, produced several TV sitcoms, notably "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement".
Portman plays Novalee Nation, a poorly-educated, pregnant teenager who is dumped by her redneck Tennessee boyfriend, Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) as they stop off at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart, en route to California in his clapped-out car. Abandoned and desolate, she camps in the store and in a thunderstorm (shades of "Oliver Twist") delivers a little girl, aided by a local, doting librarian (James Frain) and the infant is hailed by the local media as "the Wal-Mart baby".
What follows are exaggerated sequences of characters and events across a five-year period, including the disastrous incursion of Novalee's mendacious mother (Sally Field), friendships with a maternity nurse (Ashley Judd) who seems to have made a vocation from being a single parent, a frenzied religious fanatic and reformed alcoholic (Stockard Channing), and the Wal-Mart photographer (Keith David) who teaches our heroine to find fulfilment by using a camera.
The trashy ex-boyfriend Willy Jack does a spell of jail time, and becomes Billy Shadow, a country singer, prodded onwards by his hard-boiled Nashville agent (Joan Cusack) but he succumbs to booze. So much plot is crammed in, it's like a feature-length soap. The baby is kidnapped. There's a "Wizard of Oz"-style tornado that threatens to snatch mother and child heavenwards. And a lot more besides.
Improbable and manipulative, nevertheless it has an odd, almost appealing tone. Portman excels, but Judd and Frain are not far behind her, and their dedication makes it just possible to forget the nonsense of it all.
Visit the official Where the Heart Is website.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.