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'Tumbleweeds': Delightful Drifters
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 1999


    'Tumbleweeds' Janet McTeer (right) plays a flaky mom in "Tumbleweeds." (Fine Line)
There are three levels of dramatic performance: impersonating, acting and becoming. Most stars can do the first, at least for a little while; most professionals can do the second, for an act or two. But the third is a rare accomplishment.

That's why "Tumbleweeds" is such a mind-boggler. Janet McTeer doesn't imitate Mary Jo Walker, and she doesn't act her. She becomes her. It's almost spooky.

If you've ever roamed the modern South off the interstates and stopped now and then for a Moon Pie and a Dr Pepper at the Piggly Wiggly, you've seen Mary Jo, maybe behind the register, maybe standing in flip-flops and bermudas with a bagful of Pampers and two scrawny, beautiful kids in tow. Mary Jo's got a sheaf of blond hair amplified by your Wal-Mart Clairol, is not young but not old, either, and dresses like a woman who wants to be noticed as a woman. Yet when she talks, some miracle happens. She's got it. I don't know what it is, but she's got it.

The sparkle. The glow. The power. The boldness. The courage. The blue eyes that click onto High Beam at key moments. The connection to all things of earth and sex and nurture. The flirty sense of self and place and confidence. The voice that rumbles, then warbles, then flattens, then climbs, a sophisticated instrument of such charm that it takes your breath away. You know her in an instant, the 20 miles of bad road she's traveled and the busted marriages she's survived, the bad luck with the boys, the good luck with the kids and the unquenchable will to keep on going through the dust.

That's Mary Jo as played by McTeer, who was last seen as Nora. You know, Ibsen's Nora in a Broadway production of "A Doll's House." Before that, she was Vita Sackville-West. Yes. Hard to believe. McTeer is as English and as classically trained as the day is long. If you see this movie and you think "Ibsen" and not "Wal-Mart," you are a better man than I, even if you're a woman.

Already slightly famous, the movie is attracting extra-cinematic attention not merely for McTeer's outsize performance but for the film's similarity to the similarly themed "Anywhere but Here" with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Indeed, both films are about complicated mothers who pull up stakes with precocious daughters who are more like sisters than children, and light out for the territory. You might call it a feminized, modernized version of Huck Finn, with a beat-up car for a raft and Route 66 for the Mississippi.

But what's more interesting about the films is their differences. The Sarandon picture, which spent more on its doughnut budget than "Tumbleweeds" did on its existence, is somehow more shaped dramatically, has more artificially "good" lines and feels more professional in all departments, which may or may not be a good thing. "Tumbleweeds" is rougher around the edges and through the middle, but it feels less like a movie and more like a life.

We first glimpse Mary Jo in full extremis: Another relationship is breaking up in a crescendo of screaming accusations. Dutifully, her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown, who is superb) loads up the car and off they head, trailing much dust and no regrets. Next destination: an old high school boyfriend. Lives in a trailer. Nice guy but radiates dullness so profoundly that they don't even stop to chat. Just throw the Chevy into reverse and peel on down the road.

Most of the movie takes place in San Diego, where Mary Jo and Ava begin a life. In no time at all, Mary Jo has moved in with a truck driver named Jack (played by Gavin O'Connor, the film's director and co-writer), another decent enough guy but one so set in his ways that you know he'll fry under the fire of Mary Jo's incandescence.

Truth to tell, nothing big happens. Mary Jo and Ava live their lives, making adjustments. Jobs pan out or don't pan out. The school play comes and goes (the movie's one absurdity: 12-year-olds performing Shakespeare in an American public school; but the meaning is ironic, to contrast romantic love in all its tragic grandeur with the more squalid daily reality of the stuff).

The workplace, as ever, sucks. Jack and Mary Jo break up; Dan (Jay O. Sanders), another decent guy, takes an interest. You know he's the one for her before she does, and to watch these two edge toward each other is the movie's best thing.

It just sort of goes on. It's one of the few movies ever made that don't feel like a movie. Nobody's particularly witty. They just throb and course with life.

Tumbleweeds (100 minutes) is rated PG-13 for sexual suggestion.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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