I am going to break the rules a little this week. Normally, the selection of the week is a film that has been out for a few years and is languishing on the backshelves waiting to be found. This week, I wanted to spotlight a video that should have gotten more attention when it debuted last week.
Tumbleweeds, is the best new film that you will never see unless someone points it out. When Janet McTeer was nominated for an Oscar, many people were asking me about the film. What was it? Where did it come from? How come I never heard of it? This is a classic case where a small, wonderful film was lost in the shuffle because it didn't have the advertising and marketing power behind it that a big blockbuster can count on. It played in few cities and disappeared quickly. The film also had the problem of being similar to a big budget film with bigger name actresses - Anywhere But Here starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. However, you should check it out this week.
Janet McTeer stars as Mary Jo, an aging southern belle who has no ability to deal with her problems. She runs from marriage to marriage, town to town, bad relationship to bad relationship instead of facing her problems like a grown up. This has taken a toll on her twelve-year-old, wise-beyond-her-years, asthmatic daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown).
As the movie opens, Mary Jo and Ava are on the run again. Mary Jo's current beau, like the rest, is abusive, so the ladies have decided to leave West Virginia. They decide to head to Missouri, where Mary Jo can hook up with a man who was madly in love with her during high school, but she never had a use for him until now. That turns out to be a bad idea, and Ava convinces Mary Jo to head for San Diego.
In San Diego, things seem to be going well. Ava has found a new friend and likes her school, while Mary Jo finds a job and seems to be getting on her feet. However, Ava is very upset because Mary Jo has taken up with yet another guy who is destined to be bad news - Jack, played very well by writer and director Gavin O'Connor.
Will San Diego be like every other stop along the way? Will Jack turn out to be bad news? Can Mary Jo grow up and keep her job? Will Ava be able to succeed?
The McTeer-Brown pairing makes the movie work. McTeer creates a character who is childlike in her big dreams and inability to deal with life's problems, while Brown creates a young lady who is wise beyond her years and wishes to be a regular kid. The two balance each other out as each character tries to inject a little of what the other needs. Mary Jo tries to instill some childlike wonder and silliness in Ava, while Ava tries to force Mary Jo to grow up and be responsible.
I can't say enough about Brown. After watching Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) be nominated for an Oscar, I was left wondering why she wasn't given the same honor. Brown is just as fantastic. You don't feel as if the kid is acting because she is so good. It is difficult to watch a film where the child is acting like the parent, but Brown creates a character who doesn't relish the role of adult and doesn't come off as precocious.
No one should be surprised that McTeer puts in a fantastic performance. A Tony award winner for The Doll House, she knows a little something about acting. What is surprising is how convincing she is as a fading southern belle. In the film, she transforms from the brunette British actress she is into a southern, big haired blonde. If I didn't know her background, I'd swear she was from Arkansas.
The way McTeer got the role has the makings of a legendary Hollywood tale. According to an interview with O'Connor on the film's official web site, "I actually wanted to watch [The] Charlie Rose [Show] to see the cast of Chicago, because I'd just seen the show. Then the next half-hour was Janet. She wasn't being interviewed for more than two minutes when the light bulb just went 'ding!' I had envisioned this eyebrow-arching, very pompous English stage actress, and then there was Janet on television and she was this brassy, ballsy, foul-mouthed broad! I was going, 'My God, this is Mary Jo. This is Mary Jo!"
With the cast on board and the script finished by O'Connor and co-writer Angela Shelton, they started pounding the pavement for a production company that would finance the film. While several production companies expressed interest, none would take on the project. With no other alternative, O'Connor slashed the budget by a third, sold his share of his father's company and borrowed money from his parents to make the film. They shot the film in 24 days and it was all worth it.
There are only two flaws in the film. First, the camera work is pretty shaky at times. I'm not sure that it was on purpose, but it is annoying either way. Also, the film is ten minutes too long. It still ends on a high note, but could have ended with a better scene instead of throwing in two more scenes that don't add anything to the film. Check out Tumbleweeds this weekend.
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Written by Gavin O'Connor and Angela Shelton
Based on the novel by Angela Shelton
Janet McTeer .. Mary Jo
Kimberly J. Brown .. Ava
Jay O. Sanders Dan
Gavin O'Connor .. Jack
Laurel Hollman .... Laurie
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