JUST LIKE the Natalie Portman vehicle Anywhere But Here, Tumbleweeds concerns a flighty mom and a sensible daughter, both of them small-town hicks headed for the promised shores of SoCal. The mothers are dependent on their sexuality—however wilting—for fleeting rewards, while the daughters—despite burgeoning hormones—have reservations about the opposite sex. Both films are mediocre mother-daughter stories, with Tumbleweeds containing more sap than a pine forest. What is interesting about them are the feminist messages conveyed by the young girls who are willful and wise beyond their years, clearly in retaliation to their confused mothers.
directed by Gavin O'Connor
with Janet McTeer and Kimberly Brown
opens December 10 at Metro and Uptown
Directed and co-written by Gavin O'Connor, Tumbleweeds is not a subtle story. That it won the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance is a mystery. The mother, Mary Jo, is played by British stage actress Janet McTeer with a cornpone drawl. She's got the emotional stability of an open gas pipe. After screaming at a boyfriend in a ruckus worthy of The Jerry Springer Show, Mary Jo grabs daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) and screeches away in a rusty car. Where they're going, Mom doesn't know. Maybe Missouri, where an old high school crush is now a "thriving" used-car salesman.
IN CALIFORNIA, it's not long before Mom hooks up with a trucker named Jack (O'Connor himself), who has the looks and charms of a meatball. They move in with him, despite Ava's protests. If Mary Jo isn't the best role model, she's the best foil for Ava, who thinks relying on Jack will lead to trouble—the girl, of course, is right.
If seraphic Natalie Portman is the girl we wanted to be, Kimberly J. Brown is more like the girl we really were. Brown's Ava is chubby and asthmatic, far less graceful than her namesake Ava Gardner. Still, the girl is full of smarts and bubbly charm. When her middle school announces a play, she tries out not for the role of Juliet, but Romeo. Her reasoning: If men played women's roles back in the 16th century, she should be able to play a man's role.
A girl playing Romeo is a ripe symbol. Does it mean she's gay? Does it mean that she doesn't need a Romeo? That she's her own Romeo? It's open to interpretation, but what's clear is that the girl saw an alternative that no one else did—least of all her mother.