Mary Jo Walker is the kind of woman all too common on the American sociological landscape. Pushing 40 years old, her entire adult life has been spent rushing into and running away from abusive relationships. Brazen on the outside, insecure inside, she's never been without a man. The thought has never even occurred to her.
But it has occurred to Ava, her brassy 12-year-old daughter. After an ugly fight with her most recent husband, Southern-fried Mary Jo packs a suitcase, grabs Ava by arm and hauls butt for Missouri. "What are we gonna do there?" Ava smarts off. "Somebody else you want to marry?"
An obliging, but not easy, character drama about discovering self-esteem and independence, "Tumbleweeds" quickly gives the impression this shack-up-and-run lifestyle is habitual for this hereditary duo, played with remarkable, unfeigned angst, desperation, devotion, animosity and irony by Broadway transplants Janet McTeer and Kimberly J. Brown. They don't even own anything that can't fit in the back of Mary Jo's jalopy of a GTO.
But Ava is sick of being a tumbleweed (great title!) and watching her mother throw herself at worthless men. So she tries to take charge after convincing mom to settle in San Diego. Wanting to perhaps stay in the same school an entire semester for the first time in her life, she puts her foot down, refusing to budge from Sunny SoCal. As a result, Mary Jo get a job and acquires a budding sense of autonomy and validation.
But much to her Ava's disgust, soon after hitting town her lovelorn mother moves them in with a handsome trucker (played with beer-swilling bitterness by director Gavin O'Connor) that she's buttered up, convincing herself she's in love (again). Only Ava recognizes him as a ticking time-bomb of domestic abuse.
Co-written by O'Connor and Angela Shelton, and based on Shelton's own childhood, "Tumbleweeds" is the kind of low-budget production that shoots hotel room scenes in actual hotel rooms. Foibles of seat-of-the-pants filmmaking (momentarily visible boom mikes, for example) are in evidence, too. In fact, O'Connor's wildly distracting hand-held camera style looks less like an artistic choice and more like he just couldn't afford anything better.
But McTeer and Brown have such an authentic and absorbing mother-daughter dynamic that it doesn't take long before such trifles fade into the background, revealing a pair of nuanced performances that ring so true you can't help but become emotionally involved in their lives, cheering on Mary Jo for finally testing the waters of self-reliance and seeing Ava make friends she might be able to hang on to for a while.
"Tumbleweeds" covers some compulsory territory on Ava's part (fantasy father figures, first kisses, first box of sanitary napkins), but does it with a refreshingly frank and funny point of view that often sneaks up on you, giving Brown a chance to really shine.
There's all kinds of early Oscar buzz for McTeer on this film, but that's in part because she out-shines Susan Sarandon in a virtually identical role (save the battering) in the recent "Anywhere But Here."
But personally, I find the performance of the wonderfully unaffected Kimberly J. Brown -- who is up against the talented and stunning Natalie Portman in this head-to-head comparison -- an even more astounding performer.
A smart, comely girl without the salad-sculpted figure to compete in Portman's world of gamine Hollywood teens, she deserves extra accolades for tapping into childhood characteristics most kids never realize they have until years later when their parent humiliate them in front of dates with embarrassing stories of when they were younger. She's the one who is the movie's most promising discovery.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd March 2000
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 55 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: William S. Hart as Don Carver (as Wm. S. Hart)
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