Tumbleweeds (1999)

Kimberley Brown and Janet McTeerCast: Janet McTeer, Kimberley Brown, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders, Lois Smith, Laurel Holloman, Michael J. Pollard, Noah Emmerich, Ashley Buccille, Cody McMains.
Screenwriters: Gavin O'Connor and Angela Shelton.
Music by: David Mansfield
Cinematographer: Dan Stoloff
Director: Gavin O'Connor

Grade: C+

Review by Dana Knowles.

Tumbleweeds is the sort of indie film that people think of when they think of indie films. It's small in scope, modest in intent, intimate in focus and--when all is said and done--not much happens. It's a slice-of-life/road movie/domestic melodrama about a mother and daughter who coexist in a state of nearly constant motion. Hence, the title. Janet McTeer is sharp and sassy as Mary Jo, the mother half of the duo. A four-time loser at marriage, she seems incapable of imagining herself alone, self-sufficient, or stable. Her daughter Ava (the remarkably poised and versatile Kimberley Brown) is all too familiar with her mother's foibles, and though she tolerates them, it's not without objection. As the film opens, we see Mary Jo entrenched in a scream-fest with (presumably) husband number four, while Ava cowers in her room and awaits the inevitable. The inevitable?  Departure. Escape. Relocation. A new beginning, which will likely be a resumption of the same old thing. They flee, in search of the next man that Mary Jo can attach herself to for refuge from herself and the world at large. Ava predicts this turn of events openly (and repeatedly), and is not proven wrong (also repeatedly).

What ensues is an occasionally amusing and touching turn of events, as Mary Jo and Ava tumble their way toward California after rejecting some of the "sure thing" options in other locales, which consist of men from Mary Jo's past, with whom she believes she can rekindle ancient attractions sufficiently to infiltrate herself and Ava into their lives. Oy. Ava presses for California, where there are no such men, and somehow Mary Jo acquiesces. Still, poor Ava's victory is short-lived. In the midst of their journey, their car breaks down, leading to an interaction with a helpful trucker that will set up Mary Jo's next conquest.  Once they reach California and settle into a beach community, mere days seem to pass before Mary Jo bumps into the trucker--whose appropriately manly, blue-collar name is Jack (Gavin O'Connor)--in a local bar. Almost instantaneously, she and Ava move in and make a home with him, though Ava rails against it as much as she can. She knows the relationship is doomed, but Mary Jo seems certain that this guy might be the one who will last. Yeah, right....Janet McTeer

There are many things to admire in Tumbleweeds. The performances are earthy and have the ring of authentic humanity, particularly that of Kimberley Brown. The story is capably told and is appropriately grounded in a "movie" sort of realism, at least in terms of dialogue and basic human interactions. Some of the peripheral characters are fairly interesting or engaging (Mary Jo's friend Laurie, Ava's friend Ashley, and especially Ava's puppy-love boyfriend, Adam), but they're underused.  Others among the peripheral characters are more symbolic than fleshed-out, particularly the loathesome boss Mary Jo works for (Pollard), the Earth Mother Nursery owner (Lois Smith) she approaches about a job, and the so-nice-and-so-stable-that-he's-invisible fellow (Jay O. Sanders), who clearly represents the many missed opportunities for decent affection that Mary Jo has most probably overlooked while zeroing in on Mr. Wrong every time at bat. There are small pleasures in several scenes, particularly those between McTeer and Brown, that convey the fundamental loyalty and love that binds them together. As a whole, however, this tale falls short of compelling or satisfying.Gavin O'Connor

Though it is, perhaps, only a personal problem for me, I was ultimately annoyed by the film's attitude toward Mary Jo's love for Ava. While continually presenting scenes that underline their closeness and Mary Jo's dedication to her, I couldn't help wondering why Ava's pleas for sanity and common sense were routinely ignored. It's clear that Mary Jo is capable of working and capable of making a home for them, or gathering the resources for moving them. And yet she allows herself to drag her beloved daughter into one dangerous (emotionally, at the very least) domestic situation after another. It's never clear what motivates her to do so. Is it simple loneliness? Horniness? Or a deep fear that she cannot provide for her daughter without the support of a man? If Mary Jo loves Ava as deeply as she is shown to in some of their scenes together, why does she put her through these tortures? I'm not saying that such things don't happen, mind you. But I found a significant gap between the level of devotion implied by the tone of the film and the actual devotion inherent in Mary Jo's choices. She's far too selfish to merit the sort of admiration that the film itself affords her.

In addition, there are times when the script's key events felt contrived or unconvincing to me. The blow-up Mary Jo stages as she quits her job with the offensively yucky Pollard is pure movie hogwash. And the rift that forms between Mary Jo and Jack is almost impossible to fathom as written. After four previous marriages to guys like this, she doesn't know enough not to move his recliner away from the television? Puh-leeze. Also, the too-convenient convergence of their respective employment woes struck me as a deemed-necessary mechanism to drive them into conflict. It would have been much more interesting and much more enlightening to watch an actual relationship develop and then fall apart. But the script isn't sufficiently developed to allow for that to happen. Ultimately, these characters are moved around like pawns, awaiting the moment when the director and screenwriter will allow them to decide to stop and settle down.

By the end of the film, I didn't feel that Mary Jo had learned a thing or developed into a more assured mother or woman. Instead, she simply agrees to quit running away because the movie is about to end. As lovely as the performances may be, I felt a general detachment from the proceedings. I came to adore Ava, but that only made me wish she'd be the one to run away. In the real world, she'd almost certainly do so at the first possible opportunity. In the world of Tumbleweeds, however, the thought would never cross her mind. That would muddy up the deliberately simplistic tidiness of the mess in which these two are shown to exist. As much as these characters look and feel authentic from frame to frame, something about the film itself rings false and feels just a bit hollow. Still, fans of pure performance will find plenty to embrace in the work of Brown and McTeer in this otherwise unremarkable tale. They really do shine.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Fine Line Features. All Rights Reserved.

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