Co-written by director Gavin O’Connor and his former wife Angela Shelton, based loosely on her own experiences growing up, Tumbleweeds is a gentle, bittersweet film about the relationship between a free-spirited single mother and her more level-headed twelve-year-old daughter.
Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) is a North Carolina woman who falls in love quickly and hard and much too often. Her fairy tale romances rapidly dissolve into bad and, oftentimes, abusive marriages. And when the going gets tough, the broken gets going. Mary Jo hits the road with her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), fleeing to whatever greener pastures appeal to her in the moment.
As the film begins, Mary Jo is in the middle of a row with her current spouse. She and Ava escape, leaving Missouri for Colorado Springs. But Ava convinces her mother to go to San Diego and the ocean. Along the way, Mary Jo meets Jack (Gavin O’Connor), a handsome trucker who helps her fix their broken down car. By happenstance, Mary Jo bumps into Jack in a San Diego bar and they begin a passionate romance. Which, of course, quickly turns sour.
In the meantime, Ava feels at home for the first time in San Diego, quickly making friends with Zoe (Ashley Buccille) and her first boyfriend, Adam (Cody McMains). She is cast as Romeo in the school play and enjoys frolicking at the beach. When Mary Jo and Jack’s crumbling relationship threatens Ava’s happiness, the roles of mother and daughter are turned upside down.
As director, Gavin O’Connor paints a tender mosaic of Mary Jo and Ava’s bizarre adventures and odd relationship, at the heart of which are raunchy humor, foul language and even flatulence. Briton Janet McTeer does a marvelous job portraying a lower class Southerner. Kimberly J. Brown’s performance evokes Jodie Foster and Anna Paquin. She displays the rare gift of being utterly convincing at so young an age. O’Connor plays Jack Ranson with wonderful restraint; he is neither good nor evil, just a man trying to do the best he can.
Tumbleweeds won the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.