The heroines of Gavin O'Connor's offbeat road movie Tumbleweeds are a struggling single mother named Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her feisty 12-year-old daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), who set out together from a back hollow in West Virginia to make a new life, or something like one, in sunny San Diego. The first moments of the picture are grimly familiar: a screaming match, pitting Mary Jo against the snarling brute she's about to leave; a frenzy of bag packing; a disturbed look on the little girl's face, as mother and daughter dash out to their junk heap of a car. Those who haven't seen most of this before in countless movies-of-the-week certainly remember the general outline from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a pioneering act of filmmaking feminism that earned Ellen Burstyn an Oscar a quarter of a century ago and launched a TV phenomenon of its own.
By the time Mary Jo and Ava get rolling down the road, we're also picking up vibes from Paper Moon (wisecracking kid) and Thelma & Louise (females on the brink of fate) and worrying -- some of us, anyway -- that this could be one very long ride to California.
Happily, the age of miracles has not passed. Our runaways have barely crossed the Kentucky state line when Tumbleweeds starts to show complexity and a distinct attitude. We soon learn that the earthy Mary Jo is not only a loving mother who will do anything in her limited power for her child but also an obsessive manhunter with a fatal knack for picking losers and abusers. We see that Ava, named after Ava Gardner, is not just a cute kid with a smart mouth but a lost dreamer tormented by rootlessness; her whole life has been spent moving from one Dixie backwater to another. We come to understand that the love between this mother and this daughter is multilayered and rich in contradictions. This drama of growing up, spiced with bawdy humor and suffused with rare tenderness, manages to perform double duty: Girl and woman both come of age here.
While we're on the subject of miracles, consider these: From her untidy pile of blond hair to the playful lilt of her down-home dialect, Mary Jo Walker is the picture of rough Southern charm and raw American carnality, but the actress who plays her is actually British, an able surveyor of the classics, even. Only two years ago McTeer picked up a Tony for her portrayal of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, but watching her here you'd swear she came up hard in Rocky Mount.
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Tumbleweeds's screenwriter situation seems even more unlikely. The North Carolina-born actress and writer Angela Shelton, whose unpublished childhood memoir is the genesis of the movie, and first-time director Gavin O'Connor had been married for years when they began collaborating on the script; their subsequent divorce (around the third draft, they say) didn't put the project asunder. If anything, it may have sharpened the edges of the dialogue here and there. Working on a bare-bones budget, the moviemakers shot for only 24 days, yet scarcely a word or gesture is rushed or poorly considered.
One more miracle, a little one: Young Kimberly Brown, who started making commercials when she was five, sidesteps the usual child-actor traps -- brattiness, scene-stealing, terminal cuteness -- and puts in a nicely detailed, beautifully shaded performance as a kid who's only on the verge of puberty but way ahead in the maturity department. Meanwhile, McTeer and Brown work together so naturally that we feel they've known each other for years. From their car jokes to their shared hopes, they make emotional sense. The secret of their success may lie in the democracy of the script; Mary Jo treats Ava as much like a girlfriend as a daughter, and the child understands her equality.
Tumbleweeds is not all sweetness and light, of course. In San Diego the Walkers find a foothold: a job for Mary Jo at a security alarm company, a new school and new friends for Ava, who sees in the Pacific Ocean all the traditional possibilities for a new life. But old habits die hard. Mary Jo takes up with another hairy alpha-boy, a truck driver named Jack (director O'Connor) who, two weeks after exhausting his charm supply, insists that she keep her meddling hands off his La-Z-Boy. Time for the old tumbleweed wanderlust to kick up again, but this time the daughter has something to say about it.
The details in Tumbleweeds are so carefully chosen and well executed that they could serve as a kind of dramatic and comedic gift catalog -- Mary Jo and Ava dolled up in identical ribbed bathing suits; mom teaching daughter how to kiss using a couple of apples as props. Best of all, perhaps, we have little Ava and her audition for the school play, which happens to be Romeo and Juliet. Who's to say, in Elizabethan times or our own, that Romeo must be played by a boy or Juliet by a girl? Who's to say, in southern California at the end of the '90s, that destructive human patterns must repeat themselves forever? The most liberating thing about this funny, touching, heartfelt little movie is the way it defies the rules and, in the end, begins to set its heroines free.