Gavin O'Connor's "Tumbleweeds" is a tour-de-force of character study, a
narrative whose whirlwind plot whips up our interest only to let us down
gently in the end.
The opening scene jolts us with a fight between Mary Jo Walker (Janet
McTeer) and her latest husband. The vehemence of the quarrel makes us
wonder why the movie has only a PG-13 rating. (There's a love scene later
that sets us wondering, too.) But we are quickly convinced that Mary Jo is
right to get her daughter Ava (Kimberly Brown) out of there - away from this
abusive stepfather. The mother and daughter pair sets off in on old
Pontiac, leaving North Carolina and heading west to…well, they don't know
That's one of the best qualities about the movie, its whimsicality. This
spontaneous mother, who does not get upset at things that would make normal
mothers livid, carries much of the movie with her eccentricities. We enjoy
watching her lack of vexation when the car breaks down - inevitably - on a
remote highway somewhere in the dusty middle of the country. When a trucker
stops to help, Mary Jo looks over his body as he looks under her hood;
meanwhile, Ava, a little girl wise beyond her years, pouts about her
mother's flirting. For a long while "Tumbleweeds" acts like a road movie,
as the two decide where they might end up on their flight away from the last
abusive man. We know, by the way, that Mary Jo has been married four times;
what's at least a little puzzling is that she has not been put off
starting new relationships almost the hour the old ones are sunk. So when
the pair settles in the "Pink Motel" not far from the Pacific Ocean, we
think their lives will be calmer.
Big mistake. Her feelers out for a relationship, Mary Jo actually spots the
helpful trucker - Jack, played by director Gavin O'Connor - in a bar. They
begin a romping romance while Ava is at a sleepover at a new friend's house.
The scene in which the girl returns home prematurely reveals a great deal,
actually, about Jack. Predictably, this young man ends up not quite meeting
the expectations of this impulsive woman…and vice versa. Not even Mary Jo's
job is stable, as she is subjected to harassment and whining by her boss
boss, a despicable homunculus. Throughout her strife, the anchor in her
life is Ava, the girl she named after the glamorous Ava Gardner.
And the chemistry between them is very watchable. We can imagine O'Connor
in many scenes just turning McTeer loose, her southern drawl and her lack of
inhibitions on full throttle. Several episodes are shot seemingly without
script, improvisations that show the strength of the mother-daughter bond.
McTeer is at her best when she gets fully into the skin of this promiscuous,
rather permissive mom. It's the incongruity of her behavior that engages
and mildly shocks us. At the foundation of her character is sadness,
though, as we discover when a co-worker friend of Mary Jo's asks her "Why
are you going to Arizona? Tell me." again and again. We feel a subtle but
powerful impact when the script commences to dig into Mary Jo's psychology.
Even Ava deserts her at one point. We begin to ponder, not for the first
time, if Mary Jo isn't a terribly bad example, though we probably excuse her
stupidity when we remember her affection for the girl.
Kimberly Brown is quite a find. Her accent is also markedly Southern, her
manner often more mature than her mom's. Her Ava handles the tension
between her mother and various father figures quite well, not wholly
succumbing to the conventional pouting and sullenness of children in similar
Gavin O'Connor acts naturally as Jack the trucker/jerk. He's a little too
young for Mary Jo, however, and the script causes him to reveal vital
information - like an accident and a job loss -- a little later than he
Another male, a co-worker named Dan (Jay O. Sanders), gets along famously
with the aspiring actress Ava. Sanders does a modest and strong job as Dan
Miller, though the script handicaps him by positioning him as the knight in
emotional armor: he's single, having lost his wife in a car accident that
he apparently caused. Further, Dan is conveniently available when Mary Jo
drops Jack. Sound like a few too many clichés?
A lot of things are nicely realistic about "Tumbleweeds." The characters'
lives unfold realistically, albeit a bit dramatically. But larger than life
is how most of us like our characters, and Janet McTeer's Mary Jo is a
bundle of likable contradictions. "Tumbleweeds" doesn't quite know where to
go in its final moments, though unlike many films, it does not wander off
Copyright © 1999 Mark OHara