Screenplay : Gavin O'Connor and Angela Shelton
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly Brown (Ava Walker), Gavin O'Connor (Jack Ranson), Jay O. Sanders (Dan Miller), Lois Smith (Ginger), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Michael J. Pollard (Mr. Cummings), Noah Emmerich (Vertis Dewey), Ashley Buccille (Zoe Brussard), Cody McMains (Adam Riley)
"Tumbleweeds" is about the texture and uneven rhythm of life, chronicling the desperate plight of a single mother named Mary Jo, who is caught in an endless cycle of bad boyfriends, and how she and her daughter, Ava, her precocious and increasingly frustrated adolescent daughter, survive a migratory life of moving from town to town, destructive relationship to destructive relationship.
The movie is, ultimately, about how Mary Jo finally breaks that cycle, but it offers no real epiphany or climax, or even an ending that feels like a resolution. Instead, like the clumps of grass evoked in the title, the movie simply drifts along on the winds of its own storytelling, moving from scene to scene with little exposition or narrative development, finally coming to rest at whatever point it deems the end.
This is, of course, not necessarily bad. But, the way director/co-writer Gavin O'Connor has put "Tumbleweeds" together in vaguely pseudo-documentary format, the story has no chance to breathe. He and co-writer Angela Shelton (who is O'Connor's ex-wife and whose childhood memories formed the basis of the story) have constructed a series of scenes based on a premise, but they never manage to make it truly engrossing. We feel for the characters, but we're never sure what we feel for them.
This is reflected in the fact that Mary Jo is often mistakenly referred to as a "free spirit," when in fact she is the exact opposite because she is incessantly dependent on men. She cannot exist alone, so therefore she first jumps into bed and then into the life of the first man who will have her. There is nothing "free" about her; in fact, she is a prisoner who is allowed to roam wherever she wants, but can never truly be her own woman because her dependence forces her to trap herself in bad relationships. Viewers want to see her as earthy, strong, aggressive, and independent simply because she is a single mother who is not tied down to any one particular place. But, what they fail to see is that freedom is mental as well as physical. It is her transitory nature that makes Mary Jo a prisoner because she moves only when her current relationship reaches the boiling point.
As a character, Mary Jo demands this kind of close analysis because of the way British actress Janet McTeer literally consumes the role, embodying the slightly trashy and frustrating, but ultimately engaging Southern character in a way few performers can. McTeer is something of a revelation in the role, and she brings more life to the character than the screenplay deserves. The same can be said for Kimberly Brown, who plays Mary Jo's 13-year-old daughter Ava. Brown is shrewd and tough in the role, and we see most of the action through her growing eyes.
The story opens with Mary Jo engaged in a violent fight with her latest boyfriend. The fight ends with glass breaking, furniture being thrown, and Mary Jo and Ava on the road headed west. After a few slight misadventures, they wind up in a small seaside California town near San Diego, where Mary Jo immediately enters the cycle again by shacking up with Jack (played in convincingly slimy fashion by director O'Connor), a truck driver who had earlier helped them when their car overheated on the driveway. Jack seems like an okay guy at first (don't they all), but as with the others he turns out to be an overbearing control freak with a short fuse and a dim future.
The main difference this time is not how Mary Jo handles the situation, but how Ava finally refuses to pack up and leave with her at the first sign of trouble. Ava likes it in the new town; on the verge of full-blown adolescence, she wants a place to belong. So, although the movie is ostensibly about how Mary Jo breaks her life-cycle of destructive relationships, it is really about how Ava finally puts her foot down and forces her mother to stop running away.
"Tumbleweeds" is the kind of movie that is engrossing only to a certain limit. It isn't long into the film that the story arc becomes painfully clear, and after that there are little or no surprises, except maybe the film's blessed restraint in not turning its one decent male character (one of Mary Jo's office co-workers played by Jay O. Sanders) into a convenient hero. Instead, he stays mostly on the sidelines, and he and Ava have one of the movie's most affecting moments discussing his own sad past after she has finally run away from Mary Jo who wants to immediately move to Arizona.
Nevertheless, "Tumbleweeds" is almost worth seeing for the performances alone, especially McTeer. There are certainly a number of effective moments of both humor and drama, and the film was nicely shot by Dan Stoloff (although there are a number of sequences that are unsteady and documentary-like for no real purpose). Still, the movie seems vaguely lacking, like there just wasn't quite enough good material to fill 100 minutes of screen time, and it shows in how the movie ends without building any kind of true climax. But, then again, perhaps that was the feeling O'Connor wanted to achieve. As his characters lives will continue drifting along after the final credits, perhaps he wanted us to sense how life is indefinite and unstructured, much like a tumbleweed.
©1999 James Kendrick