The heroines of Gavin O'Connor's offbeat road movie Tumbleweeds are a struggling single mother named Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her feisty 12-year-old daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), who set out together from a back hollow in West Virginia to make a new life -- or something like one -- in sunny San Diego. The first moments of the picture are grimly familiar -- a screaming match, with lethal kitchen implements at hand, pitting Mary Jo against the snarling brute she's about to leave; a little frenzy of bag packing; a disturbed look on the little girl's face; mother and daughter dashing out to their junk heap of a car. Those who haven't seen most of this before in countless movies-of-the-week certainly remember the general outline from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a pioneering act of movie feminism that earned Ellen Burstyn an Oscar a quarter-century ago and launched a TV phenomenon of its own.
By the time Mary Jo and Ava get rolling down the road, we're also picking up old vibes from Paper Moon (wisecracking kid) and Thelma & Louise (females on the brink of fate) and worrying -- some of us, anyway -- that this could be one very long ride to California.
Happily, the age of miracles has not passed. Our runaways have barely crossed the Kentucky border when Tumbleweeds starts to show complexity and a distinct attitude. We soon learn that the earthy Mary Jo is not only a loving mother who will do anything in her limited power for her child, but also an obsessive manhunter with a fatal knack for picking losers and abusers. We see that Ava, whom her mother named for Ava Gardner, is not just a cute kid with a smart mouth, but a lost dreamer tormented by rootlessness; her whole life has been spent moving from one Dixie backwater to another. We come to understand that the love between this mother and daughter is multilayered and rich in contradictions. For instance: Mary Jo's foolhardy sexual adventures give her daughter insights she would not otherwise have; while the girl's needs, spoken and unspoken, elicit from her mother supplies of character she might not otherwise find. This drama of growing up, spiced with bawdy humor and suffused with rare tenderness, manages to perform double duty: Girl and woman both come of age here.
While we're on the subject of miracles, consider these. From her untidy pile of blond hair to the playful lilt of her down-home diction, Mary Jo Walker is the picture of rough Southern charm and raw American carnality, but the actress who plays her is actually British and an able surveyor of the classics. Only two years ago, McTeer picked up a Tony for her Broadway portrayal of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, but watching her here, you'd swear she came up hard in Rocky Mount or Charleston. Tumbleweeds' screenwriter situation seems even more unlikely. The North Carolina-born actress and writer Angela Shelton, whose unpublished memoir of childhood is the genesis of the movie, and first-time director Gavin O'Connor were long-married when they began collaborating on the script, but their subsequent divorce (around the third draft, they say) didn't put the project asunder. If anything, it may have sharpened the edges of the dialogue here and there. Working on a bare-bones budget, the moviemakers shot for only 24 days, but scarcely a word or a gesture went awry.
One more miracle, a little one: Young Kimberly J. Brown, who started making commercials when she was five and has been a regular on The Guiding Light, sidesteps the usual child-actor traps -- brattiness, scene-stealing, terminal cuteness -- and puts in a nicely detailed, beautifully shaded performance as a kid who's only on the verge of puberty, but way ahead in the maturity department. Meanwhile, McTeer and Brown work together so naturally that we feel they've known each other for years. From their car jokes to their shared hopes, they make emotional sense. The secret of their success may lie in democracy: Mary Jo treats Ava as much like a girlfriend as a daughter, and the child understands her equality. She loves her imperfect mother, but Ava's already resolved that she won't be getting married four times to bad choices.
Tumbleweeds is not all sweetness and light, of course. In San Diego, the Walkers find a foothold -- a job for Mary Jo at a security alarm company (where her creepy boss turns out to be Michael J. Pollard, the rarely seen character actor whose cult status reaches all the way back to Bonnie and Clyde), a new school, and new friends for Ava, who sees in the Pacific Ocean all the traditional possibilities for a new life. But old habits die hard. Before you can say "codependency," brassy Mary Jo has taken up with another hairy Alpha-boy, a truck driver named Jack (director O'Connor), who, two weeks after exhausting his charm supply, insists that she eat fish in a fish restaurant and keep her meddling hands off his La-Z-Boy. Time for the old tumbleweed wanderlust to kick up again in Mary Jo's restless soul, but this time daughter has something to say about it. After all, where do you run, when you're already at the edge of the continent?
The details in Tumbleweeds are so carefully chosen and nicely executed that they could serve as a kind of dramatic and comedic gift catalog -- Mary Jo and Ava dolled up in identical ribbed bathing suits; Mom teaching daughter how to kiss, using a couple of apples as props; the attentions, neither too forceful nor too remote, of the one decent man (Jay O. Sanders) in Mary Jo's world. Who's to say, in Southern California at the end of the '90s, that destructive human patterns must repeat themselves forever or expectations can't be overturned? The most liberating thing about this funny, touching, heartfelt little movie is the way it defies the rules and, in the end, begins to set its heroines free. They've earned it -- both of them.