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By James Sweeney | December 23, 1999

In this semi-autobiographical piece from writer Angela Shelton, Janet McTeer plays single mother Mary Jo Walker who is trapped in a continuing cycle of marriage, domestic mayhem, and flight with her daughter Ava (Kimberly Brown). After the latest relationship blows up, sending Mary Jo and Ava out onto the road in the middle of the night, Ava convinces her mother to head for sunny San Diego. They quickly establish themselves in town with a new job, school and friends, and after Ava begins a relationship with Jack (director Gavin O’Connor) the truckdriver, their latest clean break from the past is complete. Or is it? Ava is suspicious of Jack right from the start, not for any obvious negative traits, but because she is all too familiar with her mother’s unfortunate taste in men and penchant for bad relationships. Is Mary Jo doomed to repeat her past mistakes with Ava along for the ride, or can their love and support for each other help Mary Jo muster enough courage to break the destructive pattern? Uh, hmmm… what do you think?
While this movie is an enjoyable one, it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of telling this particular story, unless it is to focus the action in San Diego. It’s a well worn premise, but Janet McTeer’s expressive performance carries the film — she makes you care. Brown as the little girl is cute, maybe overly so (never missing a chance to mug, flashing an endearing squinty-eyed grin); not wholly annoying like, say, Jake Lloyd. But she is constantly having scenes stolen from her by more interesting characters such as her wild haired, diminutive boyfriend.
The real weak link is director O’Connor’s character who’s only purpose seems to be as a prop to tempt McTeer into another cycle of romance and abuse and be the highly stereotyped human hurdle in her final test of character. He has none of the charisma of flawed characters like Stanley Kowalski or Jake Heke from Once Were Warriors to explain the attraction, and there is very little on-screen chemistry between the couple.
The title Tumbleweeds is a metaphor for the mother/daughter pair’s wanderings in search of happiness with stability, but a better metaphor for what they seek is the ocean that beckons Ava and frightens Mary Jo who can’t swim. The coast of California, and the border city of San Diego in particular, represents a barrier to movement. Another character, played by Jay O. Sanders, who represents stability to the pair mentions a trip to the tip of Maine as his dream deferred. Both characters’ reactions to the ocean are fitting and the scenes shot of the two characters at the water’s edge represent the film at it’s most poetic.

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