Tumbleweeds (1999) ***
Directed by Gavin O'Connor. Written by O'Connor and Angela Shelton, based on Shelton's memoirs. Photography, Dan Stoloff. Editing, John Gilroy. Production design, Brice Eric Holtshousen. Music, David Mansfield. Produced by Gregory O'Connor. Cast: Janet McTeer (Mary Jo Walker), Kimberly J. Brown (Ava Walker), Jay O. Sanders (Dan), Gavin O'Connor (Jack Ranson), Michael J. Pollard ( Cummings), Laurel Holloman (Laurie Pendleton), Lois Smith (Ginger). A Fine Line release. 98 minutes. PG-13
Meryl Streep is getting serious competition in the domain of accents. It would take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Janet McTeer is British and not a would-be Southern belle.
McTeer? Who she? She won the Tony Award in 1997 for Best Actress (in the revival of Ibsen's "A Doll's House"). She is big on the British stage, has been on TV, had smaller roles in movies. Now, in her first starring movie McTeer rates an 8. 3 on the Richter scale. She's been Oscar nominated and collected a huge bouquet of awards and other nominations.
The reasons for those triumphs: Janet McTeer endows a two-dimensional character with a strong three-dimensional performance She plays Mary Jo Walker, a North Carolina gal in her late thirties who is a serial bad-chooser of men. Her life has been a long road trip between husbands (four of them), and, undoubtedly, lovers too. (Those who might sniff at her lifestyle might consider the machine-gun successions of marriages and affairs in the world of "celebrities," especially in show business. )
Each time Mary Jo quits a relationship she moves to another state. It's good for geographic knowledge of the land, especially the South. It's bad for Mary Jo and her now 12-year old daughter Ava--named after Ava Gardner who had a host of husbands and lovers. Yet there is one positive constant: the unshakable bond between mother and daughter.
In the low-budget, quickly shot "Tumbleweeds" we meet the duo in West Virginia as she is having a drag-out fight with her latest male. Pulling up stakes again Mom and Ava get in their beat-up car and hit the road. What possessions they take along are limited. It's like the rapidly packed minimum that frequent fliers have at the ready. Obviously this kind of "blitz" departure is old hat to Ava. She takes it all like a veteran of earlier wars.
The youngster's comments and body-English expressions are critical of her single parent. But never mind. There is much giggling, singing, laughing and joking on the highways and in rest stops.
The gals are heading west, without any specific plan or destination. The trip is relatively uneventful, save for a broken water hose that a passing stranger, truck driver Jack, fixes.
The encounter with Jack sums up a lot of Mary Jo's personality. She's a big gal with big looks and manners, a born flirt done up in man-trap ways, big hair, big cleavage, anklet and such. No clear clues are given as to when all this takes place, but I suspect it is not today. Otherwise Mary Jo might also have had pierced body parts and a tattoo.
They are going West, all the way, and end up in Starlight Beach, by the sea, near San Diego. You can't say that they settle there because it is blindingly clear that Mom is a recidivist. There's bound to be another man and another split.
What would movies do without coincidences? The man, met at a watering place, turns out to be Jack-of-the-highway. You guess the rest. MJ and Ava move in with him. Mother, now employed, has to put up with a deadly dull receptionist-type job and with a weird boss (Michael J. Pollard, under-used). Ava, always tsk tsking, is happy in school, gets "a new best girlfriend,"(shades of peripatetic Mom's relationships), discovers her thespian talent as the class competes for Shakespearean roles. (She studies Juliet, ends up as Romeo).
Nothing lasts of course, especially Mary Jo's relationships, except for the rock-steady love between the mother and pre-mature (read: slowly entering womanhood) Ava.
Mary Jo is perfectly drawn as cheerful, spunky and essentially very ordinary. She is based on the real-life memoirs of Angela Shelton, the ex-wife of director O'Connor (he also plays Jack). There's more than a mere ring of authenticity here. The people as real. Their portrayals avoid the temptations of pathos, heavy sugar, forced picturesqueness or comedy. At the movies Ava gets her first kiss. It's a fiasco compounded by gaucheness and asthma. But later, after a demonstration by Mary Jo, kiss #2 is a success. "My mother taught me" says the girl. In this phrase there's filial love, pride and a reminder of Mom's unorthodoxies.
Ava has gotten Mom down pat. The child is mother to the mother, which may be a deja vu all over again movie theme but mostly found in films about higher classes, typically with flighty socialite moms and sensible daughters. I can't say why exactly but the relationship in this film reminds me more of "Paper Moon"'s than of other movies.
Mary Jo is a true but not really interesting creation. She's a round-heels dame, common, even vulgar, but not coarse.
The lady may be close to trailer-trash but not quite that. She rises above this in ways rather akin to Anna Karina's prostitute-by-despair in Godard's "My Life to Live. " In that film a little schoolboy's essays about "La Poule" (French for chicken, but also meaning a broad or a whore ) goes: A chicken has an outside and an inside. Remove the outside and you see the inside. . Remove the inside, and you see the soul. " Which you do see in Mary Jo's quiet moments, in closeups where her essential loneliness jumps out at you.
What holds your interest here is how the women are drawn, how those two are confidantes, acolytes, fellow-plotters.
The construction of "Tumbleweeds" is smooth and believable. My only objections is that within one shot the jiggling camera goes unnecessarily from face to face. Also, Mr. Nice Guy widower called Dan, who works in Mary Jo's office and befriends Ava of the camera, is a potential replacement after Mom's break with Jack, but he's far and away too educated. thoughtful and classy for her. Minor flaws, major performances.