Slight but effective, "Tumbleweeds" is an intriguing slice of Americana. Southern Americana to be exact. First created by Tennessee Williams in the character of Blanche DuBois, the sexy Southern woman-child has become one of the region's most enduring stereotypes. Most recently, we saw her in the talented guise of Susan Sarandon in Wayne Wang's "Anywhere But Here." Now barely a month later, she's back in the person of Mary Jo Walker, a restless, insecure and aging sexpot who falls for and then flees from an endless array of bad choices in bed partners.
Although based on Angela Shelton's childhood memoir, "Tumbleweeds" has a great deal in common with Wang's "Anywhere But Here." Both feature young girls on the edge of adolescence who are arguably more adult than their respective mothers. Both combine the traditional cinematic elements of a road movie with the emotional elements of a mother-daughter bond.
Thankfully, both also offer the viewer tremendously vibrant performances by an actress. While Sarandon delivered a terrific performance in "Anywhere But Here," her characterization is almost obliterated by the powerhouse turn by British actress Janet McTeer in "Tumbleweeds." Only rarely does an actress fill out a character as well as McTeer does here.
Her performance goes beyond acting. Sashaying around in dresses which reveal a tad more than modesty allows and honing in on every bit of testosterone in a three-county radius, McTeer's Mary Jo is quite a piece of work. On the strength of McTeer's performance alone, I recommend this movie.
"Tumbleweeds" opens with a scene of domestic violence: Mary Jo is breaking up with the latest in a string of violently possessive boyfriends. Cowering behind a closed door, her 12-year-old daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Browne) recoils with each crash of the furniture. Moments later, mother and daughter are in the car, headed away from Mary Jo's latest mistake.
True to her nature, Mary Jo stops this westward bound trek to check out an old high-school flame. But this detour to Missouri is short-lived as Mary Jo spies her once-and-future lover. No longer the dreamboat she remembers, Mary Jo doesn't even stop the car to say hello.
As Mary Jo and Ava begin their journey anew, we slowly learn about each and their relationship. When their car breaks down in the desert and trucker Jack Ranson (played by the director, Gavin O'Connor) comes to the rescue, old habits kick in. Ava grimaces painfully watching her mother turn into a fluttery, giggly flirt. But Ava's silent wish is answered, and the two continue toward the ocean, coming to rest in a quiet seaside town near San Diego. Things seems to be going well until Mary Jo runs into her desert-savior one night in a local bar. Before long, Mary Jo, Jack and Ava are living together.
As Ava has experienced countless times before, Mary Jo and Jack become embittered as the "honeymoon" phase of their relationship tarnishes. He's short-tempered and possessive. She chafes under his domineering demands.
Ava waits for the inevitable.
Nothing much happens in "Tumbleweeds," so it's to O'Connor's credit that he chooses to focus on the relationship between Mary Jo and Ava. Theirs is a passionate, unbreakable bond, firmly grounded in unconditional love. In scenes of playfulness, O'Connor brings to the screen a rare glimpse of the mother-daughter bond that often gets overlooked in the movies in favor of more dramatic moments.
It is in this bond that Mary Jo and Ava outshine the mother and daughter in "Anywhere But Here." If only "Tumbleweeds" had the production values of that movie it would be a knockout. Right now, it is McTeer's amazing performance as Mary Jo that lights up the screen.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.