Much of the charm of director Gavin O’Connor’s remarkably assured debut film, Tumbleweeds, could be because it was made for less than $1 million and features no major stars. The people in this film look much like those one might encounter in the street, so there’s a feeling of authenticity that’s missing from the bulk of mainstream movies.

O’Connor wastes little time setting up the story. The movie begins with a hair-raising domestic argument. Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her fourth husband (Noah Emmerich from The Truman Show) scream at each other, and objects start flying through the living room. As the two move dangerously close, Mary Jo stands defiantly in his face and tells him to swing hard so her lawyer can see the bruises.

While Mary Jo dodges her husband’s blows, her 12-year-old daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), starts packing. From her speed and the neatness of her clothes, it’s obvious she’s done so several times before. Even an ill-timed asthma attack doesn’t slow her down. Almost like clockwork, Mary Jo and Ava make their way to the car and leave Tennessee for parts unknown.

They eventually decide on California. Having left several jobs and domestic partners, Mary Jo has a knack for charming her way into new occupations. Although her new life as a “phone slave” for her voyeuristic new boss (an amusingly slimy Michael J. Pollard, Bonnie and Clyde) is far from ideal, her daughter is able to attend a good school and even have her first boyfriend, Adam (Cody McMains).

However, Ava senses that she’d better not get used to her new home. Despite her dreadful experiences with her previous domestic partners, Mary Jo is still a naive flirt and has an almost magnetic attraction to handsome but ill-tempered men. Jack (O’Connor), her latest, is seemingly amiable but has little tolerance for Ava’s outbursts. His uncompromising nature almost guarantees that Ava and Mary Jo will be on the road again.

The storyline might sound like a typical domestic violence drama more suited for TV, but thankfully, Tumbleweeds is anything but somber. Much of what makes this seemingly familiar story so engaging is a strong, believable bond between Mary Jo and Ava. Mary Jo may make some colossal blunders, but she is always supportive of her daughter, and Ava admires her mother’s free spirit and her optimism (she tells her friends with pride about her mom’s colorful past). McTeer and Brown have a solid chemistry, which makes their relationship thoroughly convincing. The two look into each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial glee whenever Jack becomes disagreeable. Brown also knows how to play a character who’s wiser than her years without becoming obnoxious. Furthermore, McTeer (who is a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her role, as well as a Golden Globe winner for Best Actress in a Comedy) is so at ease and natural playing a blue-collar Southerner that it’s hard to believe she’s actually a Shakespearean-trained English thespian.

O’Connor and co-writer Angela Shelton (who based Tumbleweeds on her own experiences with her mother) create a solid group of supporting characters to go with Mary Jo and Ava. O’Connor has an instinct for getting unaffected performances from the rest of the cast, especially the children. Unlike a lot of first-time writer-directors, O’Connor puts as much weight on his characters’ behavior in reaction shots as he does on his own dialogue. He gets as much from one of Brown’s sneers as most filmmakers get from an entire page of banter. He also makes effective use of handheld cameras without making the visuals jerky. As a result, there’s a strong sense of spontaneity that a more costly production might not have.

Tumbleweeds is a modest little film that’s relatively free of big moments. Still, there’s something in the quietly affectionate glances between McTeer and Brown that seduce the viewer long after the final credits have rolled. (PG-13) Rating: 8

Categories: Movies