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TUMBLEWEEDS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Jay O. Sanders, Gavin O’Connor
Director:  Gavin O’Connor
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  Filmographies, Director Commentary, Trailer
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  April 11, 2000

Film ***1/2

What a wonderfully effervescent movie is Tumbleweeds.  It’s warm and charming, and as sunny as the desert the characters drive through.  It’s a sweet look at some of life’s awkward moments, and the audience is cordially invited to join the people on the screen in laughing at them without reservation.

It is a simple tale lifted to great heights by the buoyancy of Miss Janet McTeer, who turns in a winning, spirited performance as Mary Jo, a loving mother with a heart of gold but not quite enough common sense to go with it.  As the film opens, she’s engaged in a loud, bitter battle with a soon-to-be ex, while her daughter Ava (Brown) quietly, nervously begins to pack in her room.  She knows what’s coming, and we, the audience, understand that this isn’t the first time the pair has taken to the road under these circumstances.

Mary Jo has a youthful fire inside…borderline immature, to be frank.  “I like being married,” she tells Ava.  She’s still sure she’ll find a prince charming and live the rest of her days wrapped in romantic splendor from sunup to sundown.  It’s never quite so easy in real life, but I couldn’t help but be charmed by her willingness to try, try again, even if I did question her judgment from time to time.

At Ava’s beckoning, they head for California, and possibly a chance to lead a normal, grounded life…provided mother can stay away from the men.  Right off the bat, it doesn’t look promising, as Mary Jo seems swept off her feet by a truck driver, Jack (O’Connor) who reminds her of the Marlboro man (of all the images she could have picked for a romantic ideal!).

Mary Jo gets a job, Ava begins to settle into school with some new friends and a shot at being in her drama class’ production of Romeo and Juliet (and by the way, all the kids in this movie are delightful, and I treasured each of their scenes).  But Mary Jo soon hooks up for real with Jack, her knight in shining chrome and steel, and the two women move in with him.  Will it work this time?  Or will history repeat itself?  More importantly, a question I pondered was, do some things go wrong simply because deep down, you expect them to?

The story line is simple, and one we’ve seen before, including recent films like Anywhere But Here and Hideous Kinky.  What makes this film a slight cut above, in my opinion, is the fact that for the most part, it’s not about the story, but about moments.  There are many wonderful, funny, touching, real moments in this picture.  How Mary Jo teaches Ava how to kiss and breathe at the same time, using an apple for demonstration.  Or how Mary Jo first acquires, then later departs from her newest job.  The scenes were her co-worker Dan (Sanders) teaches Ava how to read Shakespeare from the heart (literally), and later shares a quiet, heartfelt moment of revelation with her.  Or when Ava’s new young boyfriend tells her she’s a great kisser.  “My mom taught me,” she informs him.  “Cool,” he says.  And many more.

This is a wonderful cast, and young Kimberly J. Brown is an impressive find…a youngster with true acting talent, who easily carries her weight with the more experienced pros around her.  There’s no reason to think we won’t be seeing much more of her in the future.  And co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor makes a nice acting turn as Jack, the truck driving knight whose armor is not quite so polished.  And as mentioned, all the kids in this film are charming and winning.

But Janet McTeer’s performance is the true core of this movie, and she proves herself a tremendous talent.  Her sincere, funny, sexy and honest work in this film makes Mary Jo one of the most appealing characters of the year, in my book.  Like Blanche DuBois, she sometimes has to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but when push comes to shove, there’s enough strength in to stand alone.  Her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination were both well merited, and I’m looking forward with much anticipation to her future work.

Video ***1/2

I only watched the anamorphic widescreen version (full frame also available), and I found it to be a pleasant visual experience.  The movie is obviously fairly low budget, so money was not lavished upon intricate cinematography, but for the most part, the images stay sharp and clean, with good coloring throughout, particularly in the many sunny daylit scenes.  I noticed no grain or artifacts, which pleased me considering that the dual layer feature on this disc was used to include both screen sizes, rather than allowing more space to overcome any necessary compression.

Audio **1/2

No complaints in this department, but nothing to get enthused about either.  Not a lot of dynamics in this Dolby Surround track, with most of the sound coming from the front and sparse, if any, use of the surround tracks, but then again, this is a character driven, dialogue oriented film.  The music and spoken words come through nicely and cleanly, which is really the most you can ask for.

Features **1/2

This isn’t a Platinum Series entry from New Line, but it still comes with a trailer, DVD ROM extras, filmographies and a running director’s commentary track.

Summary:

Tumbleweeds is a simple, modest little movie that just plain succeeds.  It is a warm and funny look at a terrific mother/daughter relationship, and is a film that’s filled with charm, humor, and the unbridled spirit of throwing caution to the wind and treating life like the adventure it is.  Well written, aptly directed, and superbly performed, this one is a definite keeper.