"Tumbleweeds" is one of those wonderful, deeply personal pictures that pop up every now and then to lift your spirits.
British actress Janet McTeer, who won a Tony for her Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House," persuades you instantly that to the core she is Mary Jo Walker, a working-class native North Carolinian.
McTeer is superlative in every way, and her performance ranks among the year's best--but it's in the kind of low-budget film that usually doesn't receive the big, expensive push needed to cop the top annual film awards. McTeer in turn is well matched by resourceful Kimberly J. Brown as her 12-year-old daughter, Ava.
Mary Jo is one of those women who could never be described as beautiful but she has lots of personality and an appealing figure. A bottle-blond with her share of bad hair days, Mary Jo is a hearty, free-spirited good-time gal who is beginning to show some mileage, but who long ago decided that life was to be enjoyed. She hasn't her daughter's high level of intelligence but is a most loving and devoted mother, no matter how reckless she may otherwise be.
When we meet her, she's in a pitched battle with a seedy, T-shirted drunk in a trailer. He turns out to be her current boyfriend--and we may be somewhere in West Virginia. In an instant, she's gathered up Ava and their belongings and hits the road in an old car, heading eventually, at Ava's insistence, for California to begin a new life.
In time we learn this is an old pattern for Mary Jo, who first married at 17. Three husbands later and who knows how many lovers, she has in fact become like a tumbleweed, moving from man to man and place to place when things don't work out.
Ava, however, has grown weary of rootlessness and soon has reason to believe she was right to hold out for California, where she and her mother settle in a suburban San Diego coastal community. Ava loves the ocean, makes friends at school and even tries out for a student production of "Romeo and Juliet."
Mary Jo, meanwhile, lands a job in a security company office run by the eccentric Mr. Cummings--how could he not be weird since he's played by the always bizarre Michael J. Pollard? Most important, she finds shelter and a hot romance with a big, warm-natured truck driver, Jack (Gavin O'Connor, who also directed the film, which he wrote with Angela Shelton, inspired by her experiences with her own restless mother).
O'Connor is as skilled a director as he is an actor, and he also draws fine portrayals from Jay O. Sanders as a withdrawn but kindly co-worker to Mary Jo; Laurel Holloman as the fun-loving but caring co-worker who befriends Mary Jo; and Lois Smith as an older woman, a kindred spirit with Mary Jo who also befriends her.
Like lots of us, Mary Jo can be foolishly obtuse. Clearly, she has scant financial resources--in fact, if this were real life and not a movie, she would surely have even less--but she is not about to take that into consideration for very long. Jack seems like your stereotypical good old boy, but he is in fact far more sensitive than Mary Jo, and he is a caring and responsible man who wants to be a good mate and father.
But Mary Jo is so oblivious and Ava so innocent and their mother-and-daughter bond so strong that they tend thoughtlessly to leave Jack out. Mary Jo, who is arguably less mature at the core than her daughter, isn't smart or focused enough to make any substantial effort to see the need to encourage Ava to respect the overly conventional Jack or his earnest attempts to do the right thing.
But then Mary Jo is the kind of woman who'll move in with a man and start changing things around without any discussion with him--she even moves Jack's beloved Lazy Boy away from his TV set. You can see where this relationship is headed for sure, unless Mary Jo wises up fast. But this time there is a difference: Ava may not understand the need to share her mother with Jack but she definitely doesn't want to hit the road again.
What sets "Tumbleweeds" apart from many similar pictures, beyond the high quality of its performances, is O'Connor and Shelton's perspective on Mary Jo. It would seem that they wisely don't expect her to be capable of a shattering self-discovery and transformation.
It's quite enough for her to be confronted with herself to the degree that she acknowledges that she has spent her whole life running away from her problems and that it might be a smart thing to stop and deal with them. They don't expect her to see that it is she--and not Jack--who has messed up or that she's not always going to find it possible to land a man or a job with ease.