Tumbleweeds (1999)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Noah Emmerich
Extras: Audio Commentary, Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files

From year to year, it seems to get more difficult to decide which films are "Oscar-caliber" and which aren’t. At first glance, I wouldn’t have considered the hard-edged "Tumbleweeds" the kind of film that the Academy would embrace. But, upon further inspection, "Tumbleweeds" reveals itself to be a multi-faceted film that has much more to offer the viewer than the much-ballyhooed performance of Golden Globe Winner and Oscar nominee Janet McTeer. Despite the similarity in story to the recent Susan Sarandon — Natalie Portman vehicle "Anywhere But Here", "Tumbleweeds" exhibits unique characters and a disturbing realism that sets it apart.

"Tumbleweeds" tells the story of Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her 12-year old daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown). Mary Jo is in her late thirties, and has a long and sordid history of becoming involved with men. Typically, these relationships are unhealthy and Mary Jo flees, taking Ava with her. As the film opens, we see Mary Jo leaving Vertis (Noah Emmerich, Marlon from "The Truman Show), and fleeing their West Virginia home to start life over… again.

Mary Jo wants to go to Arizona, but Ava suggests that they go to California, and they set their sights on San Diego. Once there, Mary Jo gets a job with a home security firm (where Michael J. Pollard is her boss!!) and Ava settles in at the local junior high-school. However, Mary Jo has difficulty abstaining from her old patterns and soon falls for Jack (co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor). Things seem to go alright at first, but Ava fears that the relationship with Jack will soon sour and that she and her mom will be on the road again.

The core of "Tumbleweeds" is its depiction of the connection between Mary Jo and Ava. Ava is a 12-year old girl who has been forced to see the worst of what life can offer. Because of this, she is much more mature than her mother. This puts Ava in the unenviable position of being the rational and responsible person in the relationship. When Mary Jo speaks of hitting the road again, Ava is the one who is forced to ask why. Also, the film does a good job of showing that while Mary Jo may not be "Mother of the Year" material, (note the scene where she teaches the 12-year old the best way to kiss boys!) she always demonstrates that she truly loves and cares for Ava.

While "Tumbleweeds" can at times be a bit over the top in its depiction of the buddy-buddy relationship between Mary Jo and Ava, the realism in which Mary Jo’s plight is depicted is very realistic. In my years as a counselor, I’ve worked with many women like Mary Jo, who don’t understand that they can live without being in a relationship. In the film, we see that Mary Jo is a very independent and strong-willed woman, who is capable of raising her daughter single-handedly and holding a job at the same time. Still, she feels that she must have a man as well. And, as is typical with this sort of woman, she picks the most unhealthy relationships that she can find. Even when a "nice guy" is right in front of her, Mary Jo cannot find any romantic interest in him. The character of Mary Jo is one of those characters who you find yourself yelling at because you can’t believe the decisions that she makes, but believe me, her life is all too real for many women.

Apart from the way that the character is written, the thing that makes Mary Jo so believable is the performance by Janet McTeer. First of all, it must be said that for a Brit, McTeer does a pretty believable North Carolina accent. Second, the amount of energy and enthusiasm that she brings to the role only helps to draw the viewer into the film. Relative newcomer Kimberly J. Brown does a fantastic job as Ava. And, it must be said that director Gavin O’Connor does a fine job of bringing an air of menace to the role of Jack.

Despite these positive points, the film does suffer some in the story department. The script for "Tumbleweeds" was based on the real-life experiences of co-scripter Angela Shelton. While Mary Jo’s experiences are portrayed very realistically, some of the material doesn’t come across as being very fresh. At times, the story doesn’t seem much more original than the standard "Movie of the Week" fare. Still, director O’Connor keeps things moving along nicely and does manage to build a true sense of suspense concerning the tension between Mary Jo and Jack. And also, it’s refreshing to see a film where a young person can go to school and make friends instead of being threatened or assaulted.

The New Line Home Video DVD of "Tumbleweeds" offers a nice package of the film. The movie is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The framing appears to be accurate, as there is no warping of the image. The picture is very clear, with only some faint graininess showing at times. The color scheme of "Tumbleweeds" is represented very well on this DVD, with particular attention being paid to bright colors, like Ava’s green swimsuit. Despite the oftentimes dark subject matter of the film, O’Connor tends to focus on keeping the film well-lit.

The audio on "Tumbleweeds" is a Dolby 2-channel Surround Mix, which serves the film well. The dialogue is always crisp and easily understandable (although I can’t guarantee you’ll understand McTeer’s accent). There isn’t a great deal of surround sound going on, but that’s not surprising for a drama like this.

The DVD includes an <$commentary,audio commentary> by co-writer/director/co-executive producer/star Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor manages to talk consistently throughout the feature. His comments are scene-specific for the most part, and he offers a great deal of insight into the origins of the story. Unfortunately, he is also very serious and very dry and the commentary becomes a bit dull after a while. "Tumbleweeds" also features the theatrical trailer for the film, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 and filmographies for the cast and crew.

I went into "Tumbleweeds" expecting it to be more light-hearted fare and was surprised to find a hard-edged tale of a woman running from abusive relationships. The film offers a fairly realistic picture of a woman with serious relationship issues and the bond between herself and her daughter. While the film sometimes stumbles due to the pedestrian storyline, it eventually triumphs because it has so much heart.