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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Tumbleweeds

Starring: Noah Emmerich, Janet McTeer
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Cody McMains, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders, Laurel Holloman, Ashley Buccille, Kimberly Brown, Lois Smith, Michael J. Pollard

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Many people complain that movies are increasingly divorced from real life. Surely popcorn flicks like "End of Days," "Stigmata," "The World is Not Enough," and "Toy Story 2" do not reflect what goes on your daily life or mine. Still, horror and action-adventure stories are popular largely because they take us out of ourselves into new worlds made all the more convincing and stirring as technical effects keep improving. By contrast, folks who prefer more down-to-earth stories may appreciate the indies, the small productions released without the hope of earning megabucks but which provide cultural fulfillment for those wanting a more sensible look into the nurture provided by human relationships of recognizable people rather than the nature of Satan, anarchists, and evil spirits.

The danger faced by filmmakers who eschew the occult, the outlandish and the incredible is that they may turn to the other extreme--by providing us with down-home stories easily replicated on the smaller screens of home television. Such is the difficulty with "Tumbleweeds," a movie which garnered accolades from independent circuits through which it has traveled because of its lifelike portrayal of a mother-daughter alliance. Despite good acting by the two principals--"a towering performance" if you believe Box Office magazine-- played by Janet McTeer and Kimberly Brown, the story is so humdrum and the mother unlikable in her self- destructiveness that I found myself squirming in the plush seat of a top-notch movie house.

Like the similar "Anywhere But Here," which is superior because of a tighter script and more expensive production values, "Tumbleweeds" focuses on a 12-year-old girl who is more mature and more stability-seeking than her puerile parent. Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer), so damaging to herself that she has been through four tempestuous marriages and keeps begging for more punishment, has just run out on number four after a close encounter with a raised fist. Traveling west with all the permanence of the thistled plant for which Angela Shelton's story is named, Mary Jo and her 12-year-old girl Ava (Kimberly Brown) run into a truck driver, Jack (played by the director, Gavin O'Connor) and soon set up housekeeping in his home near San Diego--a location much favored by beach-loving Ava, who finds true joy playing Romeo in the school play and getting a boy friend of her own. Ava's dream is about to be shattered as the unstable Mary Jo tells off her new boss, Mr. Cummings (Michael J. Pollard) and her relationship with Jack deteriorates in much the way her previous connections had done. Ready once again to run away--this time to Arizona--she is stopped in her tracks by her headstrong daughter, who forces her mom to stand still and perhaps develop a connection with an educated man, Dan Miller (Jay O. Sanders).

I'll go along with online critic James Berardinelli, who reports that director Gavin pays "careful attention to character development and relationship building," but would not agree that these directorial efforts will inevitably make us feel a sympathy for both characters. While Mary Jo and Ava do share a solid, affectionate bond, observing Mary Jo wiggle her butt at the men she meets, opening her eyes to simulate expressiveness, and imitating adolescents in her joyful war-whoops becomes tiresome after a half hour or so.

Like Ann and Adele who, in Wayne Wang's "Anywhere But Here," mom and daughter are terrified of losing each other, though Ava appears willing to risk all to stop the immature adult from pulling up roots yet again. But while those overly enamored of character development may find great appeal in "Tumbleweeds," the story is too loose and rambling to hold the interest of those who agree with Plato who, in the classic study of theater called "Poetics" holds (more or less) that plot--not character development--is the soul of a good story.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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