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Tumbleweeds

Before Janet McTeer snared the attention of American film critics with the Sundance-winning 1999 Tumbleweeds — and her subsequent Golden Globe statuette for best actress — her previous claim to fame was a hard-won Tony award as Nora in a production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. The English-born actress had also built a substantial reputation in several British television productions, but such was hardly training ground for her role in Tumbleweeds as Mary Jo Walker, a Southern mother of one who skips from marriage to marriage, abandoning each one when the relationship turns sour and hitting the road with her young daughter Eva (Kimberly J. Brown) in search of a new town and another man. Overlooked by the 1999 Academy Awards (who were so simple-minded that they nominated Meryl Streep, yet again), McTeer's dreamy, optimistic performance in Tumbleweeds sustains virtually every scene, bolstered by smart direction from Gavin O'Connor, who co-wrote with Angela Shelton. Starting brilliantly en medias res in North Carolina, a histrionic screaming match between Mary Jo and her fourth husband cause her to pack her things, Eva in tow, and hit the road without any thought of where they are headed or even where they will sleep that night. After a few detours, Eva convinces Mary Jo that they should live in California, and before long they reach the shores of the Pacific, which holds the promise of a new life and new possibilities. Eva loves the climate and her new school, but it isn't long before Mary Jo hooks up with yet another man, truck-driving Jack Ranson (director O'Connor). While she is enraptured by the novelty of a fresh romance with the blue-collar hunk, Eva immediately recognizes that her mother is falling yet again into the same sort of trap that has kept them on the road for years, and before long she latches on to one of Mary Jo's co-workers, Dan Miller (Jay O. Sanders), a soft-spoken, educated widower who serves as a father figure while her mother's latest live-in relationship deteriorates into yet another passive-aggressive power struggle.

*          *          *

McTeer garnered plaudits all around for her performance in Tumbleweeds, and if some of them went awry by marveling how a noted British actress could do such a spot-on Dixie accent (note to pundits: most of them can), her ability to elevate Mary Jo from a boozy head-case to a sympathetic, intricate character, with irrational yet common motivations, cannot be denied. Virtually every decision Mary Jo makes is the wrong one, and her impulsive, self-centered nature would be alienating in the hands of the wrong actress, or the wrong director. But McTeer effectively illustrates the dilemma of women everywhere who seek validation from men and marriage, and what limits they will endure in exchange for a tenuous perception of security. In addition, Brown as the young Eva is an actress wise beyond her years (as is her character), paradoxically playing off her free-spirited mom, reproving her choices at every turn and recognizing the cyclical, self-destructive patterns that Mary Jo can't — or won't — see. And yet, in a group of strong performances, O'Connor comes up with a scene-stealer here, and it's remarkable to see a writer/director willing to play the heavy. As Jack, O'Connor plays back and forth between a charming, stable provider and a guy who needs a course in anger-management — rather than being villainous, the role is cast in several shades of gray, and he inhabits it thoughtfully, and skillfully, while still taking on director's duties. Good transfer, the original Dolby Surround 2.0. Includes a commentary track by O'Connor, a trailer, and cast filmographies. Snap-case.
—JJB



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