|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Friday, 24 November 2000|
'Tumbleweeds’ is a quiet but refreshingly realistic and non-hysterical tale of a mother and 12-year-old daughter trying to make a fresh start in new environs. Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) has been married four times, fleeing not just her husband but the entire state every time the relationship goes bad. After the last romantic debacle, which we see in the last stages of collapse, Mary Jo wants to head from her native South to Missouri, but her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) persuades Mom to light out for San Diego instead. Mary Jo almost at once settles into her pattern of shacking up with a man who Ava can tell will be trouble, but the younger Walker makes friends easily and wins a lead in the school play. When things get ugly this time, Ava digs her heels in. She’s all for Mary Jo leaving her beau, but she’s tired of all-out flight.
‘Tumbleweeds’ doesn’t have a hugely dramatic plot arc, but it’s startlingly lifelike and charming in its details. This may be because, as director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor tells us on a revelatory supplemental audio track, the script was based on co-writer Angela Shelton’s childhood experiences with her own unconventional mom. O’Connor demonstrates that he knows how to create completely believable tension between a couple and between parent and child. Even when Mary Jo tells off her boss (Michael J. Pollard), it seems less like wish fulfillment (as such sequences often do) and more like something one can easily imagine happening in any small but stress-filled office.
McTeer was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Mary Jo, no small feat for an actress in a low-budget film without even the narrative hook of, say, ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ McTeer is both attention-grabbingly charismatic and utterly convincing as a woman who always hopes for the best even as things appear to be rolling downhill. She also has great chemistry with the likewise persuasive Brown, who is likable without being movie-kid cute. Sanders scores as an easygoing office pal of Mary Jo’s and director O’Connor gives a good performance as the truck driver who means well but is ultimately unequipped to deal with a ready-made family.
Soundwise, there are no special effects, though David Mansfield’s largely acoustic score is a pleasure throughout. Chapter 4 makes particularly good use of Lyle Lovett’s "Private Conversation" as a commentary on life on the road.
‘Tumbleweeds’ is an appealing comedy/drama that absorbs the viewer by virtual of its craft, its verisimilitude and its non-judgmental outlook. If you’re in the mood for something modest but absorbing enough to put you into someone else’s life for awhile, this may be just the thing for you.