Where the Heart Is (2000 film)

Where the Heart Is is a 2000 American romantic drama film directed by Matt Williams and starring Natalie Portman, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, Joan Cusack, James Frain, Dylan Bruno, Keith David, and Sally Field. The screenplay, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, is based on the best-selling 1995 novel of the same name by Billie Letts. The film follows five years in the life of Novalee Nation, a pregnant 17-year-old, who is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart in a small Oklahoma town. She secretly moves into the store, where she eventually gives birth to her baby, which attracts media attention. With the help of friends, she makes a new life for herself in the town.

Where The Heart Is
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMatt Williams
Produced bySusan Cartsonis
David McFadzean
Patricia Whitcher
Matt Williams
Screenplay byLowell Ganz
Babaloo Mandel
Based onWhere the Heart Is
by Billie Letts
Music byMason Daring
CinematographyRichard Greatrex
Edited byBrooke Wilson
Wind Dancer Films
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
April 28, 2000
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million
Box office$40 million


17-year-old and seven-months-pregnant Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) and her boyfriend Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) are moving from Tennessee to California. Willy Jack abandons Novalee at the local Walmart in Sequoyah, Oklahoma when she uses the restroom and buys new shoes. There, she meets Thelma "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing) who presents her with a buckeye tree, and Moses Whitecotton (Keith David), a local photographer who advises her to give her baby a strong name. A sickly and homeless Novalee is forced to live in the Walmart, undetected. Novalee also becomes acquainted with surly librarian Forney Hull (James Frain) who cares for his alcoholic sister Mary Elizabeth (Margaret Hoard).

During a thunderstorm, Novalee, alone at Walmart, goes into labor. Forney, who has followed Novalee to the Walmart, smashes through the Walmart window to help deliver her child, whom she names Americus. Novalee instantly becomes a media darling, and while in hospital, is befriended by Nurse Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd). Her estranged mother, Mama Lil (Sally Field), visits after seeing her daughter on television, but disappears with the money donated by well-wishers. Sister Husband arrives and offers to take in Novalee and Americus.

While Christmas tree shopping with Forney, Novalle is reminded that it is Americus' five month birthday. Realizing this, Novalee races to Sister's house to find that Americus has been kidnapped. A couple from Mississippi, who had previously written an ugly letter to Novalee saying that Americus was an abomination because she was born out of wedlock, kidnapped Americus and left her at the church in the nativity scene.

Three years pass and Novalee, with Moses' help, learns to be a photographer. After a spell in prison and traveling to Nashville, Willy Jack becomes a one-hit-wonder after a slow start with "Beat Of A Heart," a song he wrote in jail. He teams with cranky music agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), who gives him a makeover and the stage name "Billy Shadow."

When a tornado blows through Sequoyah, Sister Husband is killed. In her memory, Novalee shoots a picture of Americus and the still-standing buckeye tree amidst the damage from the storm. After the funeral, Novalee finds out that she is the beneficiary of Sister's estate, totaling around $40,000. Novalee builds a new home for herself and Americus on Sister's land.

Novalee arrives in Las Vegas to accept an award for a photo contest she has won, narrowly missing Willy Jack, who happens to be in the same hotel. Ruth later breaks into his hotel room to inform Willy Jack that his old cellmate Tommy Reynolds is suing him, claiming that he, not Willy, wrote "Beat of a Heart". Ruth drops him as a client.

Upon her return to Sequoyah, Novalee discovers Lexie has been attacked by a new love interest who molested her two eldest children, nearly beating her to death as she attempted to protect them. Lexie's injuries hinder her nursing job, and she and her children have to move in with Novalee and Americus. Lexie breaks down, feeling guilty and angry, tearfully regretting her choice in men.

Forney's sister, Mary Elizabeth, later passes away. When Forney does not appear at the funeral, Novalee finds him in a hotel and comforts him. They act on the feelings they have denied for so long and spend the night together. Forney confesses his love for her, but Novalee confides in Lexie she has never considered herself good enough for Forney and is confused about her feelings for him. Her continued feelings of unworthiness become overwhelming when he says that he intends to stay with her rather than resume his studies at Bowdoin College in Maine. Believing his life would be a dead end with her in Sequoyah, Novalee struggles to lie to Forney saying she does not love him. Heartbroken and rejected by Novalee, Forney returns to college in Maine.

Novalee learns that Lexie is seeing Ernie (Bob Coonrod), an exterminator who does not possess the physical attributes that have in the past attracted her interest, but she falls in love with him after learning he gave his ex-wife his restored 1967 Chevy Camaro in exchange for custody of his step-daughter, whom he adopted as his own. The couple marry, and Lexie tells Novalee that she's pregnant.

Severely depressed at his ruined career following the lawsuit, Willy Jack becomes a depressed alcoholic while driving with a woman across country. He wanders off drunk and collapses on a railroad track where he is unable to move as a train approaches.

On Americus's 5th birthday, Novalee picks up a newspaper and sees an article about Willy Jack having lost his legs some months before and recently being robbed of his wheelchair. Novalee visits Willy Jack in the hospital and he confesses his whole life would've been different if he hadn't left her. She sees how Willy Jack is a changed man and is able to finally forgive and let go of him, but she warns him never to contact Americus.

Novalee realizes now her lies are similar mistakes with Forney. She drives Willy Jack home to Tennessee and continues to Maine to find Forney at Bowdoin. Novalee tells him she really does love him and they return to Oklahoma and marry.

The final scene is of their wedding, which takes place in a Walmart.


Differences between novel and film

  • Novalee finds the number 5 unlucky in the movie, and the number 7 unlucky in the novel.
  • Sister Husband has brown hair in the movie and blue hair in the novel.
  • In the novel, Lexie marries Leon Yoder.
  • In the film, Forney returns to school. In the novel, Forney instead travels for some time before settling in Chicago.
  • Novalee's marriage to Forney only occurs in the film.
  • In the novel, Lexie is obese. She is constantly trying new fad diets and weight loss schemes. This aspect of her character is removed from the film version.
  • In the novel, Benny Goodluck gives Novalee a buckeye tree for good luck. In the film, Benny is omitted and the buckeye tree was given to Novalee by Sister Husband.
  • In the novel, Moses has a wife named Certain whom Novalee also becomes close with. She is entirely omitted from the film.


Original music for the film was produced by Mason Daring. A soundtrack of the original music was released by RCA Records, as well as a music compilation soundtrack featuring songs used in the film by artists such as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Martina McBride, and John Hiatt.

The song "That's the Beat of a Heart" was performed by The Warren Brothers and Sara Evans. A music video was made for the song, which is included as a bonus extra on the DVD release, and features a number of scenes from the film.


Critical response

The film received mostly negative reviews. Metacritic gives it a score of 30% based on reviews from 28 critics.[1] Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 35% approval rating, based on reviews from 97 critics, with the sites consensus stating that the film's "poor script and messy plot undermines the decent cast."[2]

Box office

The film opened in theaters in the United States on April 28, 2000. Where the Heart Is accumulated (USD)$8,292,939 in its opening weekend, opening at number 4.

The film went on to make $33,772,838 at the North American box office, and an additional $7,090,880 internationally for a worldwide total of $40,863,718.[3]


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