They ran away from everything but each other.
Tumbleweeds is an authentic piece of Americana tossed onto celluloid. Gavin O'Connor has realized his vision of filming "a documentary in the context of a drama" with splendid realism. Janet McTeer is unbelievably worthy of her Oscar nomination for best actress (the final outcome which will be determined any day now).
Tumbleweeds tells the story of a mother and daughter and their love for each other through some difficult times. The film starts out as a slight twist on a typical "road film." Mary Jo has been married multiple times. Whenever her relationships sour, she tends to pick up, pack up her daughter Ava and run to a new part of the country to begin again. This has happened too many times to count (hence the name of the film) and time is running out on Ava'a formative years. We are left wondering when she will ever be able to put down some roots and finally find a place she can call home.
If you know nothing about this film, you'll probably like it quite a bit. Then, when you discover Janet McTeer (Velvet Goldmine, Wuthering Heights, Carrington) is a well-respected British stage actress playing a deep south native with a twang so thick and soft you could cut it with a fork you'll begin to respect it even more. By the time you realize one of the key players in the cast was also the co-writer/director, you really begin to believe in the talent that was brought to bear on this production. Once you realize it is based on true to life characters and was written by O'Connor's former wife and that they found a way to work together to bring this wonderful little story to the screen (AFTER divorcing), you just may fall in love.
This disc is fairly typical New Line fare. We get a wonderful anamorphic transfer and a full-frame open-matte transfer on two distinct layers of the disc. Once you press play on your remote you will get to choose between the two. The video is a bit soft in some places, but that is to be expected for an independent production of this nature. Part of it may have had to do with the film stock chosen, but is more likely a compromise of lighting that had to be made to realize the director's vision. As stated above, O'Connor was looking for a very natural and realistic sense here, and he pulls it off wonderfully. Aside from a few very beautiful scenes, which are shot very well, the film strives for a sense of realism. To say it succeeds would be an understatement. It really is as if we are plopped down in the midst of these people's lives. Part of that is owed to the camera work and directorial vision, but a very good part of that is the result of some fine acting.
Janet McTeer absolutely inhabits Mary Jo as a character. The performance is flawless and compares well to the many accent affecting Oscar nominated performances of Meryl Streep. This should make for one incredibly interesting Oscar night, with McTeer's accented Mary Jo Walker being pitted against Hilary Swank's gender bending role in Boys Don't Cry. This has to be one of the finest performances by an actress I have ever seen. Mary Jo is a pretty well written character, but the character itself did not carry McTeer to the nomination slate. Not hardly. Here talent here is self-evident by the end of the film. She carries Tumbleweeds the way I carry a briefcase—it's part of me, part of who I am every day.
McTeer is surrounded by some terrific performances as well, although it could be argued that she helped create those performances as well. For as any great team player, it is clear upon close examination that at least part of her responsibility (whether express or implied) was to elevate the performances of her surrounding players. Jay O. Sanders (Kiss the Girls, JFK, Glory) is a model of understated clarity as Dan, the quintessential "good guy" that is clearly falling for Mary Jo despite his own emotional baggage. Sanders has a good shot at becoming my favorite working character actor since J.T. Walsh passed away in 1998. Director/Actor Gavin O'Connor also turns in a surprisingly solid performance as Jack, the "new boyfriend" Mary Jo finds as soon as her tires stop rolling in San Diego. But the biggest surprise was child actor Kimberly J. Brown who does a fine job as Ava. All of these are made possible and indeed encouraged by O'Connor's directing method, which seems very actor friendly. Be aware that this film is undoubtedly Hollywood's wake up call. You will definitely hear from O'Connor again.
The disc does not qualify as an over the top special edition, and indeed lacks the Platinum Series markings of New Lines special edition series, but that's okay. Nevertheless New Line gives even this relatively bare bones disc a director's commentary and full cast and crew bios. Filled with both terrific information and some tiresome patches of silence, this reminds me to encourage New Line to consider following in Criterion's footsteps and give us more complete commentary tracks in the future. By that I mean the overproduced commentaries typical of the better Criterion releases such as Silence of the Lambs and not simply the audio essay by solo performers such as Peter Cowie on Criterion's recent release of Autumn Sonata. While the latter is quite good, the former is simply PACKED with wonderful information as the comments cut back and forth between director and actors and such. As I have said before and I will say again, these are the best commentaries in the world. They take more time and money to produce, but they are well worth the expense from this fan's point of view.
One last bit of info about the commentary track on this disc—O'Connor lets loose with many profanities here, so put the kiddies to bed before turning this one on. Interesting in light of the fact that some nudity was edited out of the film to reach for—and get—a PG-13 rating in order to allow children to view the film itself. The commentary track is laced with quite a few "F" words, not that I minded, because I didn't. It's just info each of you should know before listening to the track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Overall, I have nothing to complain about with this disc. Tumbleweeds is not going to bowl you over with emotion. It's simply not that type of movie. But it's thankfully not a formulaic Hollywood pic either, which is probably its strongest point. The film is filled with joyful and funny moments and New Line classifies it as a comedy, but its surely more than that.
Gavin O'Connor picks us up and sets us down inside the world of the Walkers, Mary Jo and Ava. We experience some funny and sweet moments as well as some heartfelt, gut wrenching ones. But throughout the presentation, everything rings TRUE. Which is probably the greatest compliment that can be paid a director. Kudos to O'Connor and his team who worked hard through their 28 day shooting schedule to introduce us to some real people. They have succeeded on every level.
New Line, McTeer, O'Connor and cast are all acquitted. The court's apologies go out to all involved in this wonderful film. The prosecutor better just watch it. I'll be keeping an eye on him. If he keeps bringing films of this quality up on charges, he's liable to lose his license to practice law.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Director's Commentary
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