Every time something seems to go wrong with a relationship, Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), pack up and move to another city. It’s a routine that Ava is getting tired of as she gets older and, if anything, just wants to settle down in some place, where she can make more friends and have something resembling a healthy, reliable family-unit. But because Mary Jo is such a wild firecracker, who seems to have a knack for always choosing the wrong guys, Ava doesn’t get that. However, after traveling further down South, Ava and Mary Jo feel as if they may have finally found that one and special someone who, yeah, may not be perfect, but may also be the answer that they’ve been looking for. He’s trucker Jack Ranson (Gavin O’Connor), who instantly takes a liking to Mary Jo and does whatever he can to please Ava, but for some reason, she’s just not taking it. After all, she’s way too preoccupied with trying to get the lead in her school’s take on Romeo & Juliet where, of all the roles, she decides to try-out for the role of Romeo.
Tumbleweeds has that feeling of every Sundance indie-flick you’ve ever seen, but there’s also something refreshing and quite lovely about it. Some of that has to do with the fact that co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor, knows how to handle these small, somewhat gritty tales about everyday people that you’d normally meet on the street and try something with them that’s interesting to watch. They may not be ground-breaking tales, but they’re still ordinary takes on everyday human beings lives and for that reason alone, they definitely deserve a watch.
And yeah, Tumbleweeds is that movie.
O’Connor, as both a co-writer and director, does well here with the material. While he’s treading a whole lot of familiar-ground, he gets by with the material in soft, small and subtle touches that somehow make it feel a slight bit fresher. The fact that Ava is, like so many other movie teens, a precocious kid who has a love for Shakespeare, but an even bigger want, love and desire for the perfect family, not only makes her more believable, but somehow more sympathetic, even when it seems like she’s being a brat. Same goes for Mary Jo who seems like the typical free-spirited lady in one of these movies – the kind who has no rhyme, reason or code for what it is that she does or when she does it, but decides to pack up and leave whenever she feels it’s necessary. They’re both unlikable in certain respects, but because they have such a lovely and nice bond with one another, it’s hard not to love them together.
It also helps that Janet McTeer and Kimberly J. Brown are both pretty great in their roles, showing a nice bit of chemistry that’s actually believable and not at all annoying. McTeer has a certain sense of fun and spunk in her performance that makes Mary Jo an entertaining gal for who she is; while she likes to drink hard, party hard, and have sex pretty hard, she also longs for a solid family-unit, where she can finally settle down and not have to worry about where her life is going to take her next. McTeer keeps us guessing as to when that other shoe is going to drop and when she’s going to get ready to hit the road, but it’s still enjoyable to watch her nonetheless.
And even though she’s playing the kid here, Brown’s also quite good. Sure, she’s the teenager who may have a bit of a chip on her shoulder and may act as if she knows more than she actually does, but there’s still something entertaining in watching all that. Brown feels like a real kid here as Ava, so it’s hard to watch her performance and not think of how we all acted at this age – of course, they may have been under circumstances, but still.
We were all kids nonetheless.
And while it may seem odd that he cast himself in his own movie, in such a pivotal role, O’Connor’s actually pretty competent as an actor that he helps some of his rougher-scenes, actually work. I have no clue why he was doing a New York accent the whole time, despite being a rough, gruff and tough truck-driver from San Diego, but hey, I’ll take it. It’s also nice to see Jay O. Sanders here as Mary Jo’s co-worker who, just like her and Ava, seems to have that same longing for love and a family, but just doesn’t know how to go about actually getting it. It’s a sweet role that works well beside Mary Jo and Ava’s relationship, even if he does randomly pop-up at contrived moments.
But hey, it still works.
Like I said before, though, Tumbleweeds isn’t a perfect movie. It’s hard not to pinpoint just what is going to happen with the plot, where and at what moments, but the movie is less about the plot-structure and the surprises that the actual story itself has to offer, and more about the characters, their relationships, and how they get by in life. Once again, it’s your typical Sundance flick, but that doesn’t always have to spell out trouble. Sometimes, it can just mean that your story and your movie pays more attention to the human heart and characters than most other movies out there and well, there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
So long as you do it all right. Which O’Connor does and has done for quite some time since this flick.
Consensus: Regardless of the conventional plot, Tumbleweeds is a well-acted, heartfelt take on the mother-daughter relationship, without hitting any sappy moments that material like this would seem to promise.
7.5 / 10