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Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 23 November 1999


Directed by Gavin O'Connor.

Starring Janet McTeer, 
Kimberly J. Brown, Gavin O'Connor, 
Laurel Holloman, Michael J. Pollard 
and Jay O. Sanders.

  Written by Gavin O'Connor 
and Angela Shelton; 
story by Angela Shelton. 

In Tumbleweeds, Janet McTeer, with a billow of long blond hair swirling over and around a face set with vibrant eyes, plays Mary Jo, a middle-aged woman who been through several marriages and many relationships with men, practically none of which worked out. When her latest one comes to an end, she picks up herself and her daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), and drives them from West Virginia towards the Southwest -- probably a good place, Mary Jo considers, for alleviating Ava's asthma condition. Sitting in a roadside restaurant, Ava shows her mother a photo in a magazine showing an orange, perfect sunset in San Diego and asks, "Wouldn't you like to live in this picture?" They re-route for San Diego.

Along the way, Mary Jo comes up with an inspiration for how to start things fresh. She removes the, somewhat dated, hat that she's wearing and tells Ava to throw it out the window. After some reluctance, Ava does. Then Mary Jo rummages through the things stuffed in the back seat of their car and starts pitching her other clothes out the window onto the passing roadway. They're things -- they can always get things when they need them. "If we don't throw things out, we'll never have new things," she explains. So she and Ava, rather jubilantly, proceed to clear their slate for what lies ahead.

Tumbleweeds follows the latest leg in these two characters' gypsy-like existence as they reach San Diego, settle for a time in a motel, enroll Ava in the local school (where she discovers Shakespeare), and Mary Jo finds work as a secretary for an alarm company (with a boss, played by Michael J. Pollard, battered but still going as an actor). Mary Jo even finds what looks to be a decent, though taciturn man, Jack (Gavin O'Connor, who also directed and co-wrote the picture), a truck driver who -- glory of glories -- lives in a house. Mother and daughter move in with him, but Ava has seen enough to know the score, by now. She sets up a couple of crates outside her bedroom window, as an "escape route, if necessary (Mary Jo has gotten mixed up with some men who had bad tempers), and she waits to see what will develop after her mother and Jack move past the initial "lovey-dovey" stage.

This is the second mother-and-daughter-on-the-road picture to appear this fall, but Tumbleweeds, made independently and with a fairly small crew (the end credits are not very long), turns out to be more complex, more lively, and works on a much broader emotional scale. McTeer's Mary Jo has a raucous quality to her: she's earthy, and she's unpretentious when she has to be, whether it's asking for a job or helping her young adolescent daughter out on such quietly important things as getting ready to go out on a date or showing her the proper way to kiss a young man when the moment arises. For her part, Ava returns her mother's love and support, but she also knows where she stands with her mother and, also, when to let her feelings known. The movie is entertaining, but it also has one of the most well-realized, believable depictions of a parent-child relationship in years.

The picture is also laugh-out-loud funny in ways that you wouldn't expect, and ways that even surprise you a bit. (And some of the funny parts are ones that I, unfortunately, cannot recount, here, but trust me, they're pips.) Jay O. Sanders turns up as a pleasant, tentative man who works in Mary Jo's office, and becomes friends with her and Ava. This is also the second picture to come out this fall where Sanders is cast in the "good guy" role, but, here, he delivers a delicately heart-breaking scene which reveals why his character has become tentative around people, and even allowed himself to become somewhat maundering in his appearance.

Tumbleweeds is already being compared to Anywhere But Here, but the comparisons aren't really fair -- the two films are about two completely different sets of people who just happen to be mother and daughter. In Tumbleweeds, though, you get some idea of the glue that holds Mary Jo and Ava together, even when their behavior can make them exasperated with each other. Mary Jo's main problem is that she tends to bolt from a situation when she sees "where this is going, even if the situation becomes ugly in ways that Mary Jo could very well have avoided, but simply chose not to. Jack, for instance, has things that go wrong with his life, with his work, but he's not as forthcoming on these as Mary Jo is, so that, after a while, things build up inside him until they come out in blistering ways. But the film doesn't give us a one-dimensional depiction of Mary Jo as someone who keeps being victimized by the wrong kinds of men. She doesn't lay the blame off on outside causes. She'd like to be strong all the time, but can't; she'd like to rely on things, but keeps discovering that they don't stay the same. Thus, her life has become a pick-up-and-run situation which, from our vantage point in the audience, we can see that, at this point of her life, she cannot always keep on doing.

Janet McTeer gives Mary Jo a sassy quality that is American Southern through and through. Amazingly, this is the same actress who played Vita Sackville -- West in Portrait of a Marriage, the devastating TV mini-series which depicted the British poet's marriage to writer Harold Nicholson, and which was shown on PBS. in 1992. (Most recently, she played Nora in an acclaimed stage production of Ibsen's A Doll's House for which she won a Tony award; and she provided the narration to Todd Haynes' film, Velvet Goldmine.) Gavin O'Connor's observant, and immensely compassionate, film gives McTeer's smashingly-rendered character, and her on-screen daughter, a chance, in the end, to settle down and find some happiness -- "I think we deserve some happiness," she says at one point, by way of comforting her daughter -- and suggests the possibility that their tenaciousness and resiliency may pay-off.

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