Tumbleweeds, in spite of a superficial similarity to Anywhere But Here and a virtuoso performance by Janet McTeer in the principal role, is a much more propagandistic and (therefore) much less interesting film than the Susan Sarandon/Natalie Portman two-hander. It is true that Ms McTeer, who became an instant celebrity three years ago when she appeared on Broadway in a much-admired performance as the great proto-feminist heroine, Nora, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, gets as much out of the role of the aging trailer-park beauty, four-times married Mary Jo Walker, as it is possible to get. Yet just beneath the film’s surface there lurks a routine example of Hollywood feminism. Here is yet another celebration of the romance of single motherhood as well as a paradigm of feminine liberation as escape from the illusion of heterosexual addiction.
The only thing Mary Jo’s ever been good at is attracting men, but the men she attracts all turn out to be brutes and jerks, escape from whom invariably involves for her a midnight flit with her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) — whom she named for Ava Gardner — and as much “stuff” as she can transport piled into her aging Oldsmobile. The film opens with one such escape and Mary Jo pointing the car in the direction of Arizona. But Ava, now about 12 years old, puts her foot down for the first time. She wants to go to San Diego and live by the beach. And she wants to stay there, even after yet another dud man (played by the director, Gavin O’Connor) lets both her and her mother down. Staying in one place at last becomes for Mary Jo like living without a man and getting wet in the ocean for the first time — a triumph of courage and self-affirmation as an independent woman.
Well hooray for her, and hooray, too, for her new, poetry-loving, sensitive-male friend (played by Jay O. Sanders, who had a similar role in Music of the Heart). Big, friendly, grinning Jay O., like nearly all sensitive males in the movies, has a secret sorrow. A widower, he blames himself for the death of his wife in a car crash on the eve of their departure for a free-spirited life on the road in their newly acquired RV. He wins the admiration of young Ava by teaching her how to read iambic pentameter so well that she gets the part of Romeo in her school’s play (another blow struck for feminism!) and of her mother by introducing her to the revolutionary idea that men and women can be friends without living together or even, possibly, enjoying any sexual relationship whatsoever. Of course one quite understands that it wouldn’t do to have these two settle down as a happy nuclear family, but the obviously ideological character of such a denouement is just a little hard to take.