This is the time when you're all lovey-dubby, you spend every waking minute together, and then you start hating each other, and then you start fighting, and then he packs and leaves.
A mother, in search of escape from the problems of her life, drags her discerning teenage daughter along on a road trip that leads them from the U.S. mid-west to the sunny beaches of Southern California, where their relationship is severely test and strengthened. This is the basis of "Tumbleweeds", a first-time feature from Gavin O'Connor, and even though this type of story has often been told before (most recently in "Anywhere But Here", with which this film shares many similarities), the writing and performances make this seemingly routine 'road trip chick flick' worth a look.
The story opens with a vicious domestic dispute between Mary Jo Walker (Tony Award-winning Janet McTeer of "Sweet Nothing") and her current husband. As the fight in the kitchen escalates with threats of violence, Mary Jo's 12 year-old daughter Ava (newcomer Kimberly Brown) begins packing her clothes, well aware of what is about to happen, since it is not the first time. As if on cue, Mary Jo storms out on her husband, grabbing Ava in the process, and heads out on the road in search of a better life. Having married the wrong man and seen the relationship go south four times already, Mary Jo vows to her daughter that they are turning over a new leaf, and the days of packing bags in the middle of the night are over.
North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee... You really like to travel a lot, Ms. Walker, or you're a wanted woman.
Their travels take them to the sunny beaches of San Diego, where Mary Jo gets a desk job at a security firm and Ava is enrolled in school, where she makes new friends and develops a love for the works of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Mary Jo's good intentions are quickly derailed as she succumbs to her weakness for good-looking men, and shacks up with a truck driver named Jack (director O'Connor), whom Mary Jo likens to a 'Marlboro Man'. Though Mary Jo has high hopes for her latest fling, Ava's feelings of resentment against her mother's imprudence grow, which further strains their precarious mother-daughter relationship.
Mamma... I like it here. I don't want to go.
Upon initial inspection, there seems to be little in the plot of "Tumbleweeds" to differentiate it from the dozens of run-of-the-mill dramas that have focused on mother-daughter relationships in the past. The story is hardly innovative, and there aren't any major surprises to be found in the way it unfolds. However, as the film unfolds, you cannot help but be drawn into the lives of Mary Jo and Ava and care about what happens to them in the face of the difficulties they face. This is due to the rich characterizations found within the script, and the brilliant performances by the two lead actresses.
The script is based on a semi-autobiographical story by Angela Shelton, who wrote about the misadventures she had with her mother growing up. Within the film's first fifteen minutes, the script has presented Mary Jo and Ava as two fully developed characters and established the dynamics of the relationship between them. Though they both have faults, namely Mary Jo's immaturity and Ava's cynicism, it is difficult not to like these two individuals for who they are. And the situations that they encounter, even though they sometimes border on cliché, are presented from a fresh perspective due to the added dimension of authenticity in how Mary Jo and Ava approach them.
The scripts strong characterizations are then brought to life by McTeer's and Brown's earnest performances, which are executed flawlessly. McTeer, a British actress who has up until now been associated with period pieces and theater, sheds her English accent and captures Mary Jo's trailer trash mien while with gusto. Brown, as the daughter that is wise beyond her years, acquits herself nicely, bringing the requisite level of maturity and angst to her role. When on the screen together, it is difficult to imagine these two actresses as anything but mother and daughter-- yes, they are that good.
Two other performances of note include Jay O. Sanders (seen recently in "Music of the Heart") and Laurel Holloman ("Boogie Nights"), who deliver decent turns as Mary Jo's coworkers. In fact, about the only less-than-satisfactory performance is delivered by O'Connor, who doesn't seem entirely comfortable with being in front of the camera-- probably because he was more concerned with getting the best possible performances out of McTeer and Brown.
Overall, "Tumbleweeds" can be classified as a simple film done well, and marks an impressive debut for first-time director O'Connor. Delving into the relationship between an out-of-control mother and her precocious daughter, this film achieves what so many films tend to forget-- creating interesting characters for the audience to root for.