Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer), the rangy Dixie-chick heroine of Tumbleweeds, screws up her life every time she falls in love with a new man, and the movie’s glory is the way we fall in love with her — with her yahoo sensuality and hunger, which is really a reckless form of nurturing. Mary Jo, who looks about 40, has moved from place to place, all over the South, dragging her 12-year-old daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), from one crash-and-burn domestic catastrophe to the next.
Ava is her mother’s best friend, and it’s easy to see why; Mary Jo has never quite grown up herself. She’s what used to be called a free spirit. She flirts and boozes and blurts out whatever’s on her mind, and she throws her luxurious, willowy body into a room before she’s had a chance to size the place up. Landing a man is just about the only thing she’s ever learned how to do. Her freedom, without her knowing it, has become a trap.
This is the first movie role for the English stage actress Janet McTeer, and she gives a phenomenal performance. Her Mary Jo has a succulent low-country drawl and moves with an intense physical abandon, preening and posing like a teen coquette. At the same time, she speaks nervously, rushing to the end of sentences, as if she were fleeing from the center of her life.
McTeer has a deeply severe beauty — long sculpted nose, piercing eyes — which she uses to lend hints of mockery and intrigue to what is basically a naive, unself-conscious character. Mary Jo knows how to love, all right, how to care, but she’s clueless as to how to take care of herself. There is something so poignant and generous and sad in that dilemma that I think women all over will watch McTeer’s performance and glimpse an essential truth in it.
Directed by Gavin O’Connor, ”Tumbleweeds” is the sort of elegantly rambling character study we now associate, quite wistfully, with the ’70s. As Mary Jo and Ava land in Starlight Beach, Calif., and try to make a home, the movie traces the ups and downs of Mary Jo’s relationship with a sexy, short-fused trucker (played by O’Connor), a self-destructive romance she hangs on to until it begins to splinter her off from the sweet, wary Ava.
The real love story is the one between mother and daughter, and rarely have two actresses been so effortless in their intimacy. ”Tumbleweeds” bears a cursory resemblance to ”Anywhere but Here,” and, more tellingly, it often feels like a small-scale remake of ”Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Here, though, there’s nothing to behold but the plainspoken humanity of the characters, and that’s enough.