At seventeen years old and seven months pregnant, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) sets off on a road trip from Tennessee to California with her boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens (Dylan Bruno) in an old, broken down 1963 Plymouth.
While driving through Sequoyah, Oklahoma, Novalee notices her shoes have fallen through the hole in the floor of the car while she was napping. She asks Willy Jack to stop at the local Walmart so that she can go to the bathroom and buy new shoes. When Novalee reaches out for her change at the checkout, the amount of $5.55 sends her into a panic as we learned early on that she believes that the number 5 is a bad omen. She runs barefoot outside to discover that Willy Jack has abandoned her and left only her new Polaroid camera behind.
Having no where else to go, she walks back inside and meets Thelma "Sister" Husband (Stockard Channing), a woman who runs the Welcome Wagon in town and gives her a buckeye tree. Novalee also meets a photographer named Moses Whitecotton (Keith David) who advises her to give her baby a strong name. Later that evening, Novalee feeling sick, runs into the bathroom again to vomit. When she comes out of the bathroom, she discovers the store has closed. She soon figures out how to live undetected in the Walmart, spending the days walking around the town and sneaking back into the store to stay the night.
Meanwhile, Willy Jack is arrested and accused of fraternizing with an attractive stranger he has no idea is actually 14 years old and stealing money and cigarettes from a convenience store. He is sentenced to serve time where he composes a country song entitled "Beat of the Heart."
Novalee manages to live at the store for several weeks. She visits the library and meets Forney Hull (James Frain) who looks after his librarian alcoholic sister Mary Elizabeth (Margaret Hoard). After finding the info on how to tend to a buckeye tree, Novalee visits Sister Husband where she urges Novalee to plant the buckeye tree in her yard.
Birth contractions wake Novalee during a thunderstorm. Her water breaks and she goes into labor. As she collapses, she notices that she is in aisle 5 and because of her superstition, she struggles to pull herself to the next aisle. Forney (who has been following her and saw her go into the store at closing time) smashes through a plate-glass window and helps deliver her baby.
The next morning, Novalee wakes up in the local hospital to find she is a media celebrity for giving birth in a Walmart. She is befriended by her nurse, Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd). After Lexie tells her the baby still doesn't have a name, Novalee declares she will name her daughter Americus.
Lexie reveals to Novalee that she is a single woman with four children by three different men and tells an astonished Novalee that Lexie's children are all named after snack foods: Brownie, Praline, Cherry and Baby Ruth.
While Novalee and Lexi are reading letters that have been sent supporting her, Novalee's mother, Mama Lil (Sally Field), who abandoned her as a child, sees her on television and appears at the hospital. Her mother, claiming the women can pool their money and get an apartment together, takes the $500 that Novalee received as a gift from the President of Walmart. Novalee also tells Mama Lil that Walmart has offered her a job in any of the Walmart stores across the country.
Mama Lil, tucking Novalee's $500 into her bra, promises to pick up Novalee and Americus the next morning. Much to her dismay and disgust, realizing Mama Lil has abandoned her again, Novalee sits rejected at the hospital with no where to go. Sister Husband arrives and offers to let Novalee and the baby live with her.
Novalee, feeling she has a family for the first time in her life, enjoys living at Sister Husband's. While thanking him for delivering her baby, Novalee becomes friends with Forney who lives at the library with his sister.
One night, while Novalee and Forney are shopping for Christmas trees, Forney remarks that Americus is 5 months old that day. Novalee is alarmed at the realization and hurries home to check Americus.
Upon arriving, she finds the police at her home and learns Americus has been kidnapped. Novalee remembers that in the hospital she received a card from Midnight, Mississippi saying her baby was an "abomination under God," because she was born out of wedlock. The police quickly apprehend a vehicle with Mississippi plates and Americus is found safe in a nativity scene outside a church.
Upon being released from prison and making it to Nashville, Tennessee, Willy Jack becomes a one-hit-wonder with the song he wrote in jail. He teams with the grizzled and cranky music agent, Ruth Meyers (Joan Cusack), who cleans him up and gives him the stage name "Billy Shadow."
Three years later, Novalee begins a career as a photographer with the help of Moses. When a tornado blows through Sequoyah, Sister Husband is killed, and their home is destroyed. In memory of Sister, Novalee shoots a picture of Americus and the still-standing buckeye tree amidst the damage from the storm. After the funeral, one of Sister Husband's friends from Alcoholics Anonymous informs Novalee 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.
In Las Vegas, Willy Jack attempts to branch out his career and, behind Ruth Meyers's back, starts shopping around for another agent. He meets with a well-known agent named Johnny DeSoto (Richard Nance) to discuss dumping Ruth. DeSoto warns a cocky Willy Jack that Ruth is a great ally but can also be a powerful enemy. At the same time, Novalee is also in Las Vegas to accept an award in a photo contest she has won. Novalee and Willy Jack just miss meeting each other.
Ruth Meyers, who has gotten in his hotel room, informs Willy Jack that his old cellmate, Tommy Reynolds, is suing him claiming he is the true writer of Beat of a Heart, now a major radio hit. Willy Jack tells her that he wrote the song and asks Ruth what to do. Ruth tells Willy Jack that he should ask Johnny DeSoto to help him (having somehow found out about his talk with him), and terminates her connections with Willy Jack. Novalee returns to Sequoyah after the awards event without realizing how close she came to seeing Willy Jack.
One day, Novalee receives a garbled and panicked call from Brownie, Lexie's oldest child. She rushes over to find Lexie bruised and battered with her kids crouched beside her. We learn that Lexie's new love interest started to molest her two eldest children and nearly beat 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. She tearfully tells Novalee that she ignored her kid's dislike for her boyfriend, now realizing her kids saw he was evil, but all Lexie saw was his new Buick (referring to his material wealth). Lexie asks Novalee what is she supposed to say when her kids ask why this happened to them. Novalee comforts her providing Lexie with an answer from Novalee's own life experiences.
Mary Elizabeth later passes away and when Forney does not appear at the funeral, Novalee finds him in a hotel and comforts him. They act on their feelings they have denied for so long and spend the night together. Forney confesses his feelings for her. Novalee confides in Lexie but tells her she is confused about her own feelings for Forney.
Novalee learns that Lexie is seeing someone new. Lexie is embarrassed to admit "Ernie" is an exterminator and does not have quite the physical attributes she's gone for in the past. Lexie eventually falls in love with Ernie (Bob Coonrod) 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. They get married, and Lexie tells Novalee that she's pregnant.
After Forney returns from his sister's burial on the east coast, Novalee feels deeply that she is not good enough for him, knowing he has a chance of going back to school. Knowing his life would be a dead end staying with her in Sequoyah, she struggles through lying to him saying she does not love him. Novalee feels she would be preventing Forney from living the life he is intended to live and becoming successful. Heartbroken and rejected by Novalee, Forney returns to school in Maine.
Severely depressed at his ruined career following the lawsuit, Willy Jack becomes an alcoholic and starts popping pills 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 reveals to her that he lied to her on their last day together when he said he couldn't feel the baby's heart. He confesses his whole life would've been different if he'd been able to undo this one lie. Novalee, realizing he is now a pathetically changed man, is able to finally forgive and let go of Willy Jack.
Novalee realizes that her lies are similar mistakes with Forney. She drives Willy Jack home to Tennessee and then continues to Maine to find Forney at a college. 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.Natalie Portman as Novalee NationAshley Judd as Lexie CoopStockard Channing as Thelma "Sister" HusbandJoan Cusack as Ruth MeyersJames Frain as Forney HullDylan Bruno as Willy Jack PickensKeith David as Moses WhitecottonRichard Andrew Jones as Mr. SprockSally Field as Mama LilAngee Hughes as Religious womanMargaret Hoard as Mary Elizabeth HullMackenzie Fitzgerald as Americus NationDavid Alvarado as Tommy ReynoldsRichard Nance as Johnny DeSottoBob Coonrod as ErnieCody Linley as Brownie CoopAdrian Garza as Young Brownie (uncredited)
Differences between novel and filmNovalee 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, 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, as is Benny Goodluck.
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.
The film received mostly negative reviews. Metacritic gives it a score of 30% based on reviews from 28 critics. 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."
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.