In Tumbleweeds, Gavin O’Connor (who, besides starring in and directing the film, also wrote and produced it) presents us with a variation on the road-trip-buddy movie. While it’s true that, after the likes of Thelma and Louise and Boys on the Side, the woman’s version of this once typically male-only genre is no longer novel, O’Connor attempts to switch things up a bit by making his best friend protagonists mother and daughter.
Mary Jo Walker (McTeer) is the spontaneous and romantic (or so she defines herself) woman-on-the-run from yet another relationship gone sour. Ava is her responsible, level-headed daughter-in-tow, played wonderfully by Kimberly J. Brown (who, until now, I had only seen wasting her time in The Guiding Light). The thing of it is, though, O’Connor’s mother/daughter spin on the buddy movie reproduces a theme we’ve all seen before (most recently in Wayne Wang’s Anywhere But Here): an irresponsible (read: wacky) mother is, effectively, the unstable child in the relationship, in need of parenting by (you guessed it) her stable, responsible daughter. Unfortunately, Tumbleweeds doesn’t do much to disrupt this formula.
Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Jay O. Sanders, Gavin O'Connor
Still, you could decide to forgive the worn plot and look at Tumbleweeds as a character driven film. But even that falls a little flat because we’ve seen all of these people before. The beer-guzzling, abusive boyfriend serves as catalyst to Mary Jo’s initial action (hitting the road again, as the film opens). Once she arrives in Southern California and takes a secretarial job, she meets the requisite nutty, seemingly cosmopolitan co-worker (Laurel Holloman), weird boss (Michael J. Pollard), next incarnation of her abusive ideal (O’Connor), and, of course, a quietly intelligent, not-at-all-her-type father figure (Jay O. Sanders), with whom we all know our mother and daughter protagonists would be better off.
All of this is not to say that Tumbleweeds is not deserving of praise. First of all, the acting is excellent all around, but particularly Brown and McTeer’s. Kimberly Brown deftly balances 12-year-old Ava’s beyond-her-years wisdom in dealing with her mother’s problems and the childishness that befits her age (crying in her mother’s arms over her stolen mice, later asking for advice on how to breathe and kiss at the same time). Similarly, McTeer tempers Mary Jo’s irresponsibility and impulsiveness with a fierce and wholly convincing love for her daughter.
Second, despite the fact that on many levels Tumbleweeds employs a well-worn formula, O’Connor does problematize the familiar story line and characters by bringing ambiguity to the stereotypes. The film opens with an argument between Mary Jo and the man she’s living with (whether he’s a husband or boyfriend is unclear, but also irrelevant as we quickly learn from Ava that he is just one in a series of men in Mary Jo’s search for love and happiness). He accuses Mary Jo of being “all over” another guy in a bar and the argument heats up. The adults raise their voices, then start pushing each other and throwing beer bottles.
The screaming and breaking glass can be heard in the next room, where Ava pulls her suitcase out from under her bed. As she begins to throw her clothes into the case, it’s clear that this is routine for her. The shaky, handheld camera moves and swings, echoing the emotional intensity of the scene and trying to keep up with the fighting couple and the frantically packing daughter. Mary Jo taunts the boyfriend, yelling for him to go ahead and take a swing. He does. He misses. Mary Jo and Ava take off.
We don’t witness the bar scene that precedes the argument, but we might take one look at the drunk, jealous boyfriend and dismiss his credibility because he is such a well-known stereotype (overbearing, possessive, alcoholic, abuser). And so we believe Mary Jo’s protests of innocence and understand her visible contempt, as she and Ava drive away towards a new life.
The following scene with Mary Jo and Ava in the car lays out the dynamic of their relationship. When Ava asks where they are going, Mary Jo tells her she doesn’t know yet, and she needs time to think. But, when Mary Jo asks Ava where she wants to go, Ava’s response is both telling and sad: “I’m tired, Mama. I want to go to a motel and get some sleep.” We suspect by Ava’s tone and expression that she’s used to having to remind her mother of her needs, and this becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses.
Mary Jo’s car breaks down en route to California and a trucker (Jack, played by O’Connor) pulls over to repair it. Here we see her pull out all the stops, flirting, leaning up against him as he checks under the car’s hood, checking out his ass. Of course, Mary Jo’s sexual forthrightness is not problematic in itself, but we suddenly remember what the argument in that first scene was all about and we think that she might have been flirting with the guy in the bar, after all.
This is where the script written by O’Connor, based on a story by his own ex-wife Angela Shelton might be called clever: We realize that Mary Jo is not misunderstood by those around her, but by herself. She really is what she seems to be, insecure, emotionally dependent on sexual relationships. The fact that she has the strength to leave a bad situation is surely commendable: we want her to leave, both in the first scene and when her relationship with Jack begins to unravel. Still, even though she can recognize the need to get herself and her daughter away from abusive men, Mary Jo is slow to realize (let’s face it, she’s totally clueless) that the problem isn’t just that each individual guy is a jerk, it’s her choices: she runs from one bad one to another. Thanks to the familiarity of the plot line, we have confidence that her daughter’s wisdom will lead Mary Jo to realize this about herself.
O’Connor deserves congratulation for not playing out the tired expectation that Mary Jo will end up with the unassuming rumpled nice guy. Sanders gives a touching and subtle performance as Dan, and it’s a refreshing change of pace that instead of condemning Mary Jo’s spontaneity, he draws off of it, injecting some into his own life, which until now has been frozen in grief after the death of his wife. Unsurprisingly, Dan fulfills some father-figure need for Ava, but thankfully, we aren’t subjected to seeing Mary Jo end up in a “happy” and “healthy” relationship as the answer to all her problems. Sure, Mary Jo and Ava are going to settle down we know that from the outset but they become an independent twosome with a space of their own, rather than being incorporated into another male-headed household.