[Screen It]


(1999) (Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown) (PG-13)

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Drama: A single mother and her twelve-year-old daughter move across the country trying to find some happiness and stability in their lives.
Mary Jo Walker (JANET McTEER) is a woman in her late thirties who loves to flirt with men, but never has any luck in landing a decent one. First married at the age of seventeen, Mary Jo has gone through several husbands and even more boyfriends, the latest of which has similarly become abusive toward her.

Thus, she grabs her things and hits the road with her twelve-year-old daughter, Ava (KIMBERLY J. BROWN), leaving West Virginia for anywhere that may be better. After some discussion and concern over Ava's asthma, they head off for and finally arrive in the oceanside community of Starlight Beach, just outside San Diego.

There, Ava enrolls in the local school and quickly makes friends with Zoe (ASHLEY BUCCILLE) and Adam (CODY McMAINS), both of whom are in her drama class and wish to audition for the school's production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Meanwhile, Mary Jo gets a job at a security company run by Mr. Cummings (MICHAEL J. POLLARD), a quirky character drawn to her flirtatious ways. It's there that she meets her coworkers, Laurie (LAUREL HOLLOMAN), a fun-loving woman with a penchant for coffee enemas and Dan (JAY O. SANDERS), a soft-spoken but friendly sort.

When Mary Jo runs into Jack Ranson (GAVIN O'CONNOR), a manly truck driver who earlier fixed their broken down car, Ava once again sees the disaster looming but is powerless to stop her mom from getting involved with him.

Soon Mary Jo and Ava move in with Jack and from that point on, only time will tell whether the daughter's belligerence toward Jack and/or the clash between his conservative nature and Mary Jo's more freewheeling spirit will lead them down the familiar path of domestic blight.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Ever since the introduction of calendars and clocks to keep track of all things temporal, "timing" has become very important. Of course, now there's all the hoopla surrounding the Y2K problem. But if you're a bomb expert and have a bad sense of time, you're probably going to have a bad day and/or a short career. While an incorrectly set clock on your VCR might not have as dire a consequence, it certainly means you might end up taping the evening news or some informercial instead of your favorite prime time program.

The same holds true for the world of movies where timing is everything. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule, if you're not the first out of the release gate with a feature that's perfectly timed with the audience's cinematic desires, you're bound for certain box office failure. Of course movies should be as much about art as they are money, but the bottom line is that financial success is rewarded while failure clearly doesn't result in as many "let's work together" phone calls.

Unfortunately, the low end box office seems the likely future for Fine Line Features' release of "Tumbleweeds." An engaging and well-acted piece about an outgoing mother and her more reserved daughter who are both looking for happiness somewhere other than in their current situation, the film faces two serious obstacles on its road toward intended success.

For one, it comes right on the heels of 20th Century Fox's much higher profile release of "Anywhere But Here." While that, in and by itself clearly is a case of bad timing, the fact that relatively few people wanted to see that Susan Sarandon/Natalie Portman vehicle -- that bears more than a passing resemblance to this one -- doesn't bode well for what we have here. Of course, with a much smaller budget and post- production costs this one probably has a better chance of breaking even and maybe making a profit, but even so, don't expect this film to become a sleeper hit.

All of which is too bad since this is a fairly well-made and entertaining little picture. While those who saw "Anywhere But Here" will quickly notice striking similarities between the films -- the road trip across the country for a hopefully better life, the mother looking for happiness through the wrong men and a parent/child role reversal regarding the vivacious mother and her less optimistic daughter -- there are enough differences in the way the similarly constructed story and characters are written and subsequently develop that both can be enjoyed on their own level and terms.

Like that film, however, the most notable thing about this one is the incredibly strong and finely nuanced performances by the two lead actresses. While young Kimberly J. Brown probably won't give Portman a run for her money, the performance by Tony winning actress Janet McTeer may just put Oscar voters into a conundrum about choosing between her and Sarandon, especially considering the general similarities between their characters.

As the mother/daughter pair, McTeer and Brown are nothing short of outstanding. Immediately exuding a believable familial chemistry and bond, the actresses carry the film and their moments together -- whether in joy, anguish or consolation -- are easily the best the picture has to offer.

Playing the outgoing and sexy mother with a near tragic weakness for shacking up with the wrong type of men, McTeer ("Carrington," "The King is Alive"), who's best known for her stage and British TV work, is absolutely stunning in the role, even when made to perform some goofy behavior such as ironing her dress while still wearing it (in a funny scene). Covering a range of emotions necessary for the part, McTeer is always credible, and easily allows the audience to sympathize with her character.

Her young counterpart, Kimberly J. Brown (TV's "Guiding Light") easily holds her own as the daughter with a penchant -- based on previous experience -- for dismissing her mother's suitors even before they get the chance to carry that moniker. While that may make her character sound artificially precocious and sassy, Brown makes Ava a real person stuck in that awkward transition stage from girl to young teen.

Supporting performances, from the likes of Jay O. Sanders ("Music of the Heart") as the only right man for Mary Jo to Laurel Holloman ("The Myth of Fingerprints") as her equally vivacious coworker, are all good. The most notable, however, comes from Gavin O'Connor, who makes his acting debut in a completely believable fashion while also serving as the film's director, co-writer and executive producer.

While some may see that conglomeration of moviemaking roles as suggesting someone aspiring to be the next Orson Welles (who often similarly wore multiple hats on his films), O'Connor reportedly only took on the part when budget constraints prevented him from hiring another actor.

Working from a script he co-wrote with his ex-wife, Angela Shelton -- the story is based on her childhood experience of growing up with a mother somewhat like Mary Jo -- O'Connor creates a credible story that fortunately doesn't feel quite as episodic as "Anywhere But Here" often did.

Although a few moments late in the film precariously teeter on the edge of melodrama when necessary complications have to be inserted -- the writer/director manages to give them enough balance to prevent losing the audience and their vested involvement in the proceedings.

While never flashy or spectacular and clearly not a novel idea, the film succeeds mainly due to the winning performances from, and believable chemistry between McTeer and Brown, as well as enough funny, charming and heartfelt moments to make this an enjoyable and moderately moving picture. We give "Tumbleweeds" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 1, 1999 / Posted December 10, 1999

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