The road movie is a genre not likely to die anytime soon because it represents
the American landscape of searching for your identity. Now the road movie about
a single/divorced/widowed mother searching for a new place and a new man with a
daughter or son in tow is nothing new, and a certifiable genre in its own
right. From "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" to "This Boy's Life," the genre
has been milked dry of all possibilities, but then comes "Tumbleweeds," which
mildly reverses expectations.
The change is the casting of English actress Janet McTeer as the Southerner
from North Carolina, Mary Jo Walker, a vibrant, energetic woman who has just
left her husband, and hastily leaves with her daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown),
to another state. They disagree over where to go to and finally decide on San
Diego, California, near a beach. Ava goes to school and discovers she a talent
for acting, and thus prepares for a role as Romeo in the school play of "Romeo
and Juliet." Mary Jo works for a telephone wake-up call service, and has a
strange boss (Michael J. Pollard) watching her every move. Everything seems
perfect, including the truck driver she's dating, Jack Ranson (Gavin O'Connor),
who asks them to move in to his house. Ava smells trouble from the start,
already devising an escape route from her bedroom.
Mary Jo has always escaped from her life and her abusive boyfriends and
husbands, and Ava loves her mother dearly but she also knows her too well.
Their relationship and need for each other is at the core of "Tumbleweeds," and
it is pinpointed in one scene where Ava explains to Mary that everything may
seem fine with the new beau, but six months is longer than Mary should expect
to stay attached.
Everyone who is a film buff can predict where "Tumbleweeds" will go with its
premise. Jack seems nice but he's also tempermental, and ignores Ava. We know
that Jack will be all wrong for Mary Jo, yet her co-worker, Dan Miller (Jay O.
Sanders) may be what she needs - someone who can take of her and who
understands the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. We also are aware that Mary
Jo will finally realize that she is, in effect, only running away from herself.
Janet McTeer is sheerly perfect as Mary Jo - those penetrating yet soothing
eyes and luscious smile give us everything we need to sympathize with her and
her plight. She has a very touching scene with her co-worker and best friend,
Laurie (Laurel Holloman), where she admits that she does not know why she's
always leaving. The beauty is all there in this beaming, dreamy Mary Jo, but
she is also emotionally fragile.
Kimberly Brown gives one of the best, purest and most naturalistic performances
of any child actor this year as the presumptuous, smart Ava. I found myself
laughing heartily whenever she secretly winked or nodded to her mother, and
plus she has some truly humane scenes with McTeer. One particular example is
when Mary Jo is showing Ava how to kiss using apples, and the way it is shot
and timed makes the scene as simple and real as any other film could be. I also
liked an earlier scene where they toss out old clothes from their car, trying
to start anew.
My big reservation about "Tumbleweeds" is that it ends just as the story is
getting more interesting. This is one of those independent films tht would have
benefitted from a 2 hour-plus running time, especially with the introduction of
characters such as the widower Jack , the kind gardener Ginger (Lois Smith), or
Mary's best pal, Laurie. I also would have preferred a less formulaic approach
and not so many cliches (the film often feels more episodic than the rambling
character study it aimed to be). Still, benefitting from the amazing
performances by McTeer and Brown, "Tumbleweeds" has moments of true beauty and
realism that will make you tumble with joy.
Copyright © 1999 Jerry Saravia