The major reason to see Anywhere But Here, Wayne Wang's otherwise undistinguished mother-daughter relationship drama, is a wonderful turn by Natalie Portman. Portman's great gift as an actress is an uncanny ability to project a wisdom and maturity well beyond her years while still being a kid; her precociousness is preternatural. We can see in her roles from her debut in The Professional, where she's more worldly than her protector, the childlike title assassin to Beautiful Girls, where she steals the film blind as Timothy Hutton's object of infatuation. There's even traces of that bearing in The Phantom Menace peeking out from behind the stilted script. Her Ann in Anywhere seems like the summary role of Portman's career so far playing greatly to her strengths as an actress. In a type of role that usually makes me cringe, Susan Sarandon does good work, but Portman blows her off the screen. In a lot of ways, she's far more mature and wiser than her mother but she's still a sullen teenager. She also shows great range, especially in a scene where in an acting audition she performs a monologue imitation of her mother. What's especially great about it is that Ann's acting ability is nonexistent; Portman does something that strikes me as tough for someone with her natural insticts -- play a bad actress convincingly.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not up to the task of being equal to Portman's talents. Wang early on establishes the love/hate relationship between Ann and Adele, and the dynamics of the relationship never varies until Adele realizes at the end that her self-sacrificing routine is a sham. And except for a cop played by Michael Milhoan (the best bit performance I've seen this year), none of the supporting characters makes an impression. It's the Ann and Adele show and the narrow focus of the film eventually feels claustrophobic.
Which happens all too often, unfortunately. With the exception of her essentially walk-on part in Everyone Says I Love You, Portman has yet to appear in anything better than The Professional.