The main titles of Tumbleweeds run without visual background. Behind the titles, the sound track picks up an argument which grows gradually in volume as anger and conflict escalate. When the titles finish, a hand-held camera plunges visually into the crescendo of cursing, confrontation, and imminent violence. The scene careens vertiginously around the dingy working class kitchen in which Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) is up against her abusive and drunk boyfriend in a classic blowout of domestic dysfunction. Cut to a shot of Mary Jo’s daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), cowering in fear in the bedroom.
It is a finely conceived and directed opening sequence, wrenchingly believable. It both gets the audience’s adrenalin flowing and provides motivational underpinnings for the story that follows. Having laid this powerful foundation, writer/director Gavin O’Connor doesn’t have to repeat it. When, later in the film, Mary Jo is falling into a similar scenario with her next lover, just a hint of his simmering anger is enough to elicit in the viewer a visceral twinge, anticipating a repeated eruption of rage.
That’s the dark underside of Mary Jo’s life, rootlessly bouncing from one bad relationship to another. The lines and the shadows that can, at times, be seen in her handsome, fine-boned face have been imprinted by the strain of repeated conflict and ongoing insecurity. But Tumbleweeds is not a dark film. Janet McTeer, an English actress crowned with a Tony award for her Broadway performance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, here brings Mary Jo to vibrant life in one of the finest performances on the screen this year.
Mary Jo and Ava go on the road looking for a future. They settle in a southern California beach town where Mary Jo quickly gets involved with another guy, nicely played by O’Connor. It seems not to be so much that she repeatedly gets into bad relationships, more that she can’t quite see alternatives. Despite having been locked in co-dependencies, she has survived with a mostly unflagging optimism, a wild and raunchy sense of humor, and a joy in life and living that sparkles.
On the surface, her relationship with Ava is more like girlfriends of similar age than mother and daughter, but for all her worldliness, Ava is still barely pubescent. Mary Jo is a mother with a deep well of unconditional love and the mother-daughter bond is palpable. Her own uninhibited and comfortable sensuality allow her to teach her daughter how to kiss a boy and how to cope with sanitary napkins, turning the latter into a clowning laugh-fest, instinctively finding a way to relieve her daughter’s unease with her emerging womanhood.
Ava has learned skills of diplomacy. When a newly found and valued friend is distressed that Ava is going to audition – and compete with her – for the role of Juliet in the school play, Ava finds an imaginative solution: she goes for the role of Romeo instead. Ava is observant, perceptive, realistic; she’s been around her mother’s serial misadventures and they have made her wise beyond her years. She’s clever enough to counter her mother’s often unrealistic expectations; Ava’s seen it all before and it has hurt. She’ll hold back where Mary Jo plunges in. At the same time she is not beyond pressuring her resistant mom to learn how to swim which becomes a lovely metaphor for Ava’s desire to stay in California and to convince Mary Jo to do so.
McTeer’s performance is masterful. Not for a minute does she seem other than the cracker Mary Jo is. She radiates openness, optimism, and sensuality; she captures the casual, easy-going exterior and the pain and insecurity and weariness underneath, too. It’s all there at once. Kimberly Brown gives a fine performance, too, strong enough to balance the give and take between them. She can be precocious without being bratty, confident and sophisticated while still remaining a young girl.
O’Connor’s writing and direction are insightful and skilled. Occasional lapses (a superfluous flatulence scene, for example) are minor and do not cloud his achievement
In the end, when Mary Jo’s habitual instinct is to flee once again when the going gets rough, it is Ava’s insistence on staying that forces Mary Jo to stay put and find another way to live her life. Mother teaches daughter, daughter teaches mother. The loving dynamic between them is the thread beautifully drawn through all the events of the film. It fills the screen with warmth and uncommon humanity.