Tumbleweeds (1999)
First screened and reviewed in March 2000
Director: Gavin O'Connor. Cast: Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders, Laurel Holloman, Lois Smith, Michael J. Pollard, Cody McMains, Ashley Buccille, Noah Emmerich. Screenplay: Gavin O'Connor and Angela Shelton.

Twitter Capsule: A mother-daughter dramedy of remarkable friskiness, warmth, and behavioral insight, glowingly acted by its two leads.

VOR:   Originality and Risk? Modest. But I'll stump hard for Value. This movie deeply grasps both its characters and their relations. So many movies don't, when they even try.

Photo © 1999 Fine Line Features
Tumbleweeds, the second feature by actor-writer-director Gavin O'Connor, finds exactly the right loose, blowzy, unpretentious pace and structure to tell the story of Mary Jo Walker, a Southern free spirit with a knack for meeting (and marrying) the wrong men, and Ava, the savvy preteen daughter who loves her mom but grows increasingly impatient with their series of moves, and with the series of abusive losers who necessitate them. You don't have to have seen this fall's Anywhere But Here with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman to think this story sounds familiar. Obvious echoes of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore also rebound throughout. Moreover, Tumbleweeds offers yet another member of a large group of 1999 releases, including not just the Sarandon-Portman picture but also A Walk on the Moon, Limbo, and Music of the Heart that have focused at least in part on the strained but resilient relationships between headstrong, artistic single mothers and the children who both admire and resent them, often at the same time. Thankfully, all of these films have featured strong performances from both the younger and older actors. Not only is Tumbleweeds no exception, but it's the best of a strong lot—not just in the acting department but also in the acuity, humor, and emotional claims of the film as a whole.

Janet McTeer, a Golden Globe winner and current Oscar nominee for this performance, is not currently familiar to American audiences outside the lucky few who saw her in the Broadway revival of A Doll's House a couple years ago. Her fine, exuberant work as Mary Jo should raise her profile significantly, which is good news for everyone. Despite the Southern accent and other precise external details required for the British actress to inhabit the part, McTeer still manages to nail Mary Jo's utter unselfconsciousness: changing her dress in front of near-strangers young and old, dropping in and out of conversations as her eye or ear is caught by other objects, winning favors from people she barely knows because they cannot resist her wide-eyed, good-humored sincerity (which, to be honest, she sometimes deploys consciously and cannily). What makes the character even more interesting, however, and what keeps Tumbleweeds from getting too predictable, is that McTeer and the screenwriters recognize that self-consciousness has some merits, keenly felt when absent. Mary Jo has a tendency toward blithe narcissism, failing to grasp or even to ask about the sorrows or setbacks of people around her. She's also prone to pass off irresponsibility as whimsy, relying on habitual caprice as an excuse for not questioning her own motives. Tumbleweeds doesn't make a great hue and cry of pointing out the character's shortcomings or punishing her for them, which is a relief. At the same time, and just as pleasingly, Tumbleweeds and its formidable star refuse to iron Mary Jo out into wrinkleless sainthood by the story's end.

Kimberly J. Brown is almost as exciting to watch as her older co-star, largely because Ava is the rare adolescent on film who, though often wiser or more prescient than her mother, is nonetheless very much a schoolgirl in important ways. She remains impetuously jealous, and makes a few obvious ploys at attention-getting. In general, she proves better at reading her mother and admonishing her mistakes than she is at avoiding those same mistakes herself. Rather than make Ava a girl of extreme intelligence, or exaggerated sullenness, or hyperbolic confidence, or uncommon introspection, Brown chooses the rarest, most rewarding path that her luscious script permits her. That is, she registers varying degrees of all of these qualities at different moments in the picture. Her navigation of Ava's cycles of insolence, enthusiasm, and boredom within a single scene set in a bowling alley indicates the range of emotions she covers with such remarkable ease throughout the movie.

I am not saying much about what happens in this picture, not because co-writers O'Connor and Angela Shelton stint on plot but because two major pleasures of Tumbleweeds are the surprising way in which different events arise in the characters' lives and the equally unpredictable (though completely believable) ways in which they confront them. Some of these scenes we have seen several times before, and some not, but at no point does Tumbleweeds issue the kinds of rigid moral pronouncements or sudden character transformations that have sunk so many films in this genre. Even the plotlines we more or less predict sometimes arise or resolve in ways we don't expect, as when a promising character from the opening scenes disappears for a half-hour, re-emerging in Mary Jo's life almost at the moment when we have forgotten our first impression. Scenes that seem headed for disaster of either comic or tragic varieties resist those destinations with no sacrifice of humor or warmth. Other scenes that at first appear mundane gather considerable poignancy in a matter of moments.

Not at every moment does Tumbleweeds conceal its structural machinery or the comparative inexperience of its creators. As the picture comes to a close, we do start to hear the screenwriting gears cranking a little, and a few scenes featuring Brown, McTeer, and a potential love interest played by Jay O. Sanders (also the obligatory "nice guy" in Music of the Heart) sound a bit like excerpts from Monologues for Actors. In fact, the whole picture seemed a little more schematic to me in the hours after I saw it than while I sat in the theater. Just for starters, how about that surname "Walker" for the itinerant protagonists, and the even more overdetermined allusion to both of the Bible's most iconic, most weary, most famously child-bearing travelers embedded in Mary Jo's name?

Ultimately, Tumbleweeds registered to me as a modestly proportioned but gratifying and emotionally rich exploration of similar themes to those that Pedro Almodóvar pursues with more visual pizzazz but also with some narrative and emotional overreaching in All About My Mother, a title this film could well have claimed for itself. Mary Jo and Ava, like Almodóvar's women, tend to improvise their lives with laughter, chutzpah, and occasional recklessness. They repeat one another's mistakes and occasionally work themselves into circumstances or behavior patterns that they know to be undesirable, but which they cannot or will not alter. However, through their imaginations, their shared but dissimilar smarts, their considerable moxie, and, above all, their extraordinary comfort and intimacy with each other, both women resist feeling tired or victimized. They seem only rarely to imagine that they are not on top of the world. When required to face up to a setback or a self-indulgent fantasy, the best and worst aspects of how they reach out to each other—or of how they dig within themselves—are the stuff of thoughtful, engaging, empathetic drama. Meanwhile, the movie is great fun to watch, enough so that McTeer won her Golden Globe in the Musical/Comedy category. Even when Mary Jo and Ava are arguing, pouting, or underselling each other, there's a fundamental warmth to their bond that I found refreshing. The film treats that rapport as hard-won and humanly detailed, not as a pat bromide about mothers and daughters everywhere. These are two specific women, brought richly to life by two superb interpreters, and the movie is ready in every way to support them. As an instant fan of Tumbleweeds, so am I. Even with the Oscar nomination, not enough people seem to know about the film. I can already surmise that I'll be recommending it to everyone, starting now. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Janet McTeer

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Janet McTeer

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Filmmakers Trophy
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Debut Performance (Brown)
National Board of Review: Best Actress (McTeer)

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