** 1/2 Stars
(US 1999) Rated PG-13
Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Writing credits: Angela Shelton, Gavin O'Connor
Fine Line Features * 100 minutes
A number of years ago, Matt Groening (of THE SIMPSONS fame) did a LIFE IN HELL cartoon about the various types of Moms -- including "Discipline Mom" and "Fun Mom." Like most of us whose moms tended more towards Dire Consequences Mom, I often wished I had a Fun Mom.
However, from the vantage point of middle age, it is now clear to me even without Gavin O'Connor's debut feature that Fun Mom can be a real pain to have around. For one thing, she's always falling in love with the wrong guy, and worse, getting married -- often. For another thing, then she's always having knockdown, drag-out fights with these guys, and then in the middle of the night, you're packing your bags and hitting the road again in a 1975 Cutlass. When Mom is your buddy, who's your mom? When you have to pick up the pieces, who's your mom?
When we meet Mary Jo Walker (British stage actress Janet McTeer) she's just leaving her third husband (she was married for the first time at age 17) after a vicious fight. This time, as every time, Mary Jo takes to the road with her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), in search of a place where she can rekindle an old love (or find a new one) and start again.
This time, Mary Jo and Ava arrive in Starlight Beach, near San Diego, California. For a very short time, it appears that life will be kind to them in California. Ava loves her school, Mary Jo finds a job working in a security company for the bizarre Mr. Cummings (60's veteran Michael J. Pollard), and both mother and daughter make friends. Yes, life is good -- until Mary Jo becomes involved with Jack Ranson (director O'Connor), a handsome truck driver who had helped her with her disabled automobile. Ava knows that Jack isn't Prince Charming; she's lived this scenario too many times before. But Mary Jo doesn't; for she's led by her heart (or rather, by another part of her anatomy).
When the inevitable rift occurs in the relationship, Ava decides she won't take it any more, and refuses to set out on the road again. And by putting her foot down, she forces her own mother to finally grow up and accept responsibility for her life.
This is hardly original stuff. In fact, TUMBLEWEEDS has the misfortune to be competing with another "freewheeling mom/sensible daughter" flick ANYWHERE BUT HERE, which stars the Susan Sarandon and the up-and-coming Natalie Portman. Yet this film stands on its own merits, largely due to the formidable talent of the statuesque Janet McTeer and a marvelous guileless performance by Kimberly J. Brown.
Like Jude Law in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, McTeer eschews the cartoonishness that most British actors bring to their characterizations of Americans, convincingly portraying this Southern sexpot. While McTeer's characterization owes a huge debt to Sarandon's Annie Savoy in BULL DURHAM, she imbues Mary Jo with a maternal fierceness that contrasts nicely with her wiggles and hair tosses. McTeer, who has an interesting face that somewhat resembles a more sluttish Christine Lahti, curls and unfurls her improbably tall body, using it as an instrument when faced with available men.
Meanwhile, McTeer has a perfect foil in Kimberly J. Brown, perhaps the most natural child actress since Christina Ricci in MERMAIDS. Her Ava is an extraordinarily well-adjusted child, considering the mother she keeps bailing out of trouble. Without a trace of sullenness, Brown conveys with her face the conflict a child faces when she's secure in her mother's love, but who also knows that the price for having the coolest mom in town is a complete lack of stability -- a price she becomes unwilling to play.
Gavin O'Connor is somewhat less successful as Mary Jo's last boyfriend in the pattern of her life. Jack is a potentially interesting character -- a blue-collar guy with a low-grade violent streak, who ultimately just wants a normal, boring family life. But O'Connor makes him just another guy sitting on the couch with a brew in one hand and the TV remote in the other. As a director, he fares somewhat better, although he occasionally gives in to the temptation to hit the viewer over the head with a sledgehammer, showing a hamster running on a treadmill during a marital argument, or a tumbleweed blowing behind Mary Jo's car.
"Cool Mom" flicks like TUMBLEWEEDS, ANYWHERE BUT HERE, MERMAIDS, and their ilk always make me a bit uncomfortable because I keep envisioning the daughters on the therapeutic couch twenty years hence. However, TUMBLEWEEDS sports such good performances and such chemistry between its two female leads, it's worth cringing for a while.
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