directed by Gavin O'Connor
(Fine Line, 1999)

Lots of movies are predictable. Simple plot. Run-of-the-mill dialogue. A supporting cast of characters you've seen a thousand times before. But then one performance -- two, in this case -- makes it seem all right.

I didn't mind at all spending time with Tumbleweeds, and it's all thanks to Janet McTeer and Kimberly Brown. McTeer, a British actress, was nominated for an Oscar for her Mary Jo Walker, a human tumbleweed if ever there was one. Her method for dealing with bad choices in jobs and worse choices in men is to pack it all up -- including her daughter, Ava -- and head out on the road to find a new place to live.

Tumbleweeds starts as a sort of mother-daughter road movie, and one that we've seen before. But when it begins to explore the relationship of Mary Jo and Ava (Brown), Tumbleweeds takes on a depth that covers up some of the shallowness spilling around its edges. It's low-key. It feels genuine.

Ava is not a bratty child, one who constantly spews forth venom and precocious sarcasm. Nor is she an angel, mothering her mother. And Mary Jo, despite her mistakes, does what she does out of a combination of fear for herself and hope for Ava. She's rootless, but gives Ava roots in their relationship.

Director Gavin O'Connor co-wrote the screenplay with Angela Shelton based on Shelton's experiences with her mother. When Mary Jo and Ava touch down in California, O'Connor takes on the role of Jack Ranson, Mary Jo's longest relationship during the movie. And he plays Ranson not as someone totally evil, or someone manipulated by Mary Jo, but as a flawed human: struggling sometimes to do what he thinks is helpful, but unable to comprehend what's needed. (Ranson and Mary Jo are disastrous as a couple, but O'Connor and McTeer bring out wonderful things in each other as director and actor.)

There is, of course, the inevitable blow-up both with Ranson and with her boss, played by an over-the-top Michael J. Pollard -- and Mary Jo's ready to head off down the highway. But Ava's older now, and dramatic, and has a starring role in the school play. She has no intention of packing her suitcase. Plus, there's a co-worker with a painful past quietly pining for Mary Jo. And, while it's pretty simple to figure out what's going to happen next, and how it all will turn out, the same can be said for lots of movies that are offensively stupid. This isn't one of those. It is, when all is said and done, a feel-good movie -- and the success it has is thanks to the quiet magic of McTeer and Brown.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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