Men who hate being dragged along to 'women's pictures' will have a stronger argument after seeing Where the Heart Is, a cornpone epic that wastes the talents of an attractive cast headed by rising young star Natalie Portman. This meandering tale of a pregnant Tennessee teenager abandoned by her no-account boyfriend aspires to be funny, poignant and inspirational, but real emotion seldom penetrates its sticky sugar coating.

Portman plays Novalee Nation, a trailer-park type whose mama ran off with an umpire and left her to fend for herself. As the movie begins, the very expectant girl hits the road with her would-be musician lover Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno), who ditches her at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart. Novalee sets up a temporary shelter inside the store, hiding in the bathroom as the staff locks up for the night and keeping strict accounts of the items she's 'borrowed.' During her stay, she is befriended by a devout, warmhearted woman who calls herself 'Sister Husband' (Stockard Channing), and catches the eye of the nervous local librarian, Forney (James Frain). When Novalee goes into labor on a violently stormy night, it's Forney who crashes through the store's skylight and rescues her. The girl achieves brief notoriety as the mother of 'the Wal-Mart baby,' and has a temporary reunion with her estranged mother (Sally Field, in a 'you'll hate me' mode), who promptly absconds with a large share of the donations Novalee has attracted.

As the episodic tale moves ahead in time, Novalee tries her luck as a professional photographer and develops a close relationship with Lexie (Ashley Judd), an indomitable single mother with a quirky penchant for naming her children after snack foods (Brownie, Praline, Baby Ruth). Meanwhile, Willy Jack pursues his musical path, groomed by aggressive Nashville agent Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), and actually scores a hit record before his career stalls. And every once in a while, tragedy strikes, whether it's in the form of a twister, an abusive boyfriend or a speeding train.

Adapted from Billie Letts' sprawling novel, the screenplay by comedy veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, City Slickers, A League of Their Own) is a rather shapeless pile of incidents-the Willy Jack vignettes have little to do with the main body of the story, and the only real issue sustaining (and prolonging) the narrative is whether Novalee and Forney can overcome their cultural differences once they fall in love.

With a Southern twang that comes and goes, Portman is radiant and spry, but rather miscast as a backwoods girl who's been knocked around by life; an actress with more natural grit would have fit the bill. Judd is charming and just a little goofy as best friend Lexie, and Channing has fun with the eccentric, contradictory Sister Husband. Frain (Titus, Hilary and Jackie) makes an appealingly offbeat love interest for Portman, as a slightly neurotic young man saddled with a distraught invalid sister.

Making his feature directing debut is veteran TV writer-producer Matt Williams ('The Cosby Show,' 'Roseanne,' 'Home Improvement'), whose television credits have emphasized the importance of the family unit. Any one of those shows has more authenticity than this condescending fable of white trash redeemed.

--Kevin Lally