13-year-old Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) is still young enough that her mother, Mary Jo, seems like the center of the world. The film opens as Mary Jo is suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her drunken rage -fuelled husband, while Ava nervously cowers in her bedroom. Mary Jo is smart enough to realize that she can't expose her daughter or herself from this any longer, so they go on the road looking for a better future.
They settle in a southern California beach town of Starlight Beach where Mary Jo quickly gets involved with another guy, Jack Ranson (Gavin O'Connor). But things don't go as planned. It seems as though there's something about Mary Jo who thrives on hooking up with the bad guys. Soon, she continues a pattern familiar to the sarcastic, adaptable Ava: Mom moves in, meets the lout, shacks up, things go wrong, so mother and daughter move on again.
McTeer plays Mary Joe to the hilt, turning in an absolutely masterful performance. She radiates openness, optimism, and sensuality; she captures the casual, easy-going exterior but also the pain, insecurity and weariness underneath. It seems that Mary Jo, not so much gets into bad relationships, but that she just can't quite see alternatives. Despite having been locked in co-dependencies, she has survived with mostly indefatigable buoyancy, a wild and raunchy sense of humor, and a joy in life and living that sparkles.
It is the mother daughter relationship that really drives this story. 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 still a mother with a deep well of unconditional love and the mother-daughter bond is always conspicuous - she even gets a real kick out of teaching her daughter how to kiss boys.
Brown plays Ava as 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, often with disastrous results; it's as though Ava is constantly learning from her mother's mistakes.
First-time director and co writer Gavin O'Connor - who also plays Jack - is insightful and skilled at really bringing out the dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship. Every scene means something, no one gets caught acting, and there's almost no exposition.
Of course when Mary Jo finds that she's merely repeating the mistakes of the past, her first instinct is to flee, rather than face her, and it is Ava's insistence on staying that forces Mary Jo to stay put and find another way to live her life. Mother's usually teach their daughters, but the irony in this film is that daughter teaches mother.
Tumbleweeds is a lovingly pragmatic little film that is just brimming with warmth, realism and humanity. It's closely observed and honestly presented, and acts as a huge showcase for McTeer's talent as an actress. It's just a pity that, as yet she hasn't gone on to achieve the international fame that she so thoroughly deserves. Mike Leonard October 05.
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