Adele August (Susan Sarandon) can't stand living in Bay City, Wisconsin. She decides to leave her second husband, an ice skating instructor she thinks is boring, and start afresh in Beverly Hills, California. Less enthusiastic about the move is her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance). She has been happily enmeshed in small-town life and is especially close to her cousin, Benny (Shawn Hatosy).
Just before leaving Wisconsin, Adele asks her mother, "When are you going to have some faith in me?" Her reply, "When you begin to see things as they are." That's very difficult for a woman who thrives on change and new horizons. In California, she gets a job as a school speech therapist and finds a small apartment in the unglamorous section of Beverly Hills. As the days go by and disappointments accumulate, she tries hard to remain optimistic — spouting off advice like "If you only have a dime, get your shoes shined!"
Ann is an observant teenager who is slightly embarrassed by her mother. She refuses to endorse Adele's confident conclusions drawn after one date with a handsome dentist (Hart Bochner). Even though she makes new friends at high school and has a romantic encounter with a classmate (Ray Baker), she is most happy when Benny comes to visit. Her vulnerability is evident when she contacts her father, who left when she was just a child. Because she knows her mother will object, she doesn't tell her when she applies to an East Coast college.
Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) again demonstrates a knack for directing heartfelt dramas about mothers and daughters. Sarandon and Portman hit all the right notes in their stormy but loving relationship. In the end, it is a sensitive Beverly Hills cop who gives Adele the best advice any parent could ever have: "Watch the signs." You've got to be right here — not anywhere but here — in the present moment to see what is going on with those you love.