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Starring: Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders, Lois Smith Directed by: Gavin O'Connor Written by: Gavin O'Connor and Angela Shelton Based On the Story by Angela Shelton Rated PG-13, for language, sensuality, and a scene of domestic discord Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes Released by Fine Line Features

At the opening of "Tumbleweeds," we are thrust into the middle of a domestic war being waged complete with furniture flying and vicious verbal assaults... "Hit me right here! Right here where my lawyer can see it!" A young mother and her child pack only what they can carry, board their car and head out on the open road. "Do you want to go to Arizona?" the mother asks, to which her daughter shakes her head. "Where do you want to go?" she asks. The daughter's response? "I want to go to sleep. I'm tired of being in the car."


In a lesser movie, a sequence like that would lie somewhere in the middle, but director Gavin O'Connor wisely uses it as the setup, letting the audience in on what they need to know about these characters; they've been going around this cycle for a while now, and it's beginning to take its toll. Something has to give.

"Tumbleweeds" is a movie written, directed, and acted with such authenticity that the participants aren't reenacting the story as much as living it. It is based on the childhood memories of co-writer Angela Shelton, and is as intimate a portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship as any I've seen.

The movie stars Janet McTeer as Mary Jo Walker, a free-spirited single mother whose twelve year-old daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) is growing tired of being dragged from city to city as her mother tries landing the one man who will make everything complete. Their situation soon leads them to Starlight Beach, California. Ava immediately enrolls in school, and her plucky personality garners the attention and friendship of her classmates. Mary Jo finds a job at a security company and things seem to be running smoothly - this could be the one place they can actually call "home." But soon the destructive cycle rears its ugly head, commencing with Mary Jo's attraction toward Jack Ranson (Gavin O'Connor), a trucker they met on the road. Soon, they move from the freedom of their hotel room into the home of the mother's new "prince charming" - a development not appealing in the least to Ava. When Jack's true personality shows itself, Mary Jo's instinctive reaction is not just to move out of the man's house, but out of the city. The difference this time is Ava's refusal to leave the new life she has found. This is the first place where she feels comfortable, and will not give that up without a fight. The lifestyle the two have grown accustomed to is about to tear the relationship apart.

Despite the fact that it is based on true incidents, the film isn't presented as a recollection, but rather a slice of life. The entire story is shot using a hand-held camera, giving it a home movie feel. The screenplay is also written with an ear for how people - especially those involved in a dysfunctional relationship - actually communicate, adding to the film's authenticity. The scenes where Mary Jo and her new boyfriend argue feel real, not forced or overwrought. I also liked the way the script observes each relationship - not just those of a romantic nature, but the way it pays attention to the male characters' attitude toward the daughter. Mary Jo and Ava become close to two men during the course of the story, and the movie does an excellent job showing the true nature of each by the way they communicate with the daughter rather than the mother. Jack is the kind of man whose insensitivity seems to have been bestowed upon him at birth - while the "family" is out bowling, he almost instinctively unleashes his redneck chuckle when Ava rolls a ball into the gutter. The other man they get to know is Dan, a good-hearted co-worker at the security company. He never patronizes Ava, but instead talks to her like a fellow traveler on a parallel life journey. Their first conversation is about Shakespeare, and later in the story he is so drawn in by her emotional maturity, he's able to open up about a painful secret lying dormant in his heart for years. Those kinds of observations serve as a magnet, pulling us closer to the characters - making it an experience rather than a simple viewing.

This is the first feature from director Gavin O'Connor, and in addition to handling the material with a deft touch, he is aided by the brilliance of a stellar cast. Tony-Award winner Janet ("Sweet Nothing") McTeer and newcomer Kimberly J. Brown are flawless in their portrayals. McTeer magnificently creates a character driven by both fear and love rather than an awareness of what may be best for her and Ava. But while she makes some questionable decisions, she also carries a kind of vibrance and passion for life that has been successfully passed on to her daughter. Their experiences, while truly harrowing at times, have given them a desperate need for each other's love and attention. (After the opening night performance of Ava's school production of "Romeo and Juliet," she darts off stage and embraces her mother - their emotions pouring out; each being cloaked with the other's love.) The supporting performances are also carefully executed - especially from Gavin O'Connor, casting himself as Jack. He isn't so much a thug as a man painfully oblivious to the feelings of anyone else, regardless of how close in proximity they are. And Jay O. Sanders, as Dan, does a nice job of embodying an understanding individual who passes no judgement, but carries a respect for anyone dealt a series of bad hands by life.

It is fitting that the pair wind up in California, where there is nothing but the vast ocean in front of them. The movie shows the mother and daughter finding the strength inside themselves to take a risk, overcome their fears, and jump into the deep end of life, for it is only is the deepest waters where one can rise to true happiness.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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