Just on the stiletto heels of Susan Sarandon comes another dramedy about a flighty, rudderless small-town mom hitting the road for California with her reluctant, precocious daughter in tow. Unlike Natalie Portman’s wise, restless late-teen in Anywhere but Here, however, Tumbleweeds‘s 13-year-old Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) is still young enough that her mother, Mary Jo, seems like the center of the world. Mary Jo (pitch-perfect Janet McTeer), meanwhile, might not be the most practical woman in western North Carolina, but she’s not the childish, reckless loon Sarandon has to interpret. That is, McTeer gets to play a person, not a type, and one of the refreshing aspects of the slight, flawed Tumbleweeds is that it creates a world inhabited by recognizable people—they might have extra meat on their bones, their faces might be what a casting director would call “interesting,” and their personalities elude tidy summary.
Once arriving in tacky, cheerful Starlight Beach, the four-times-married Mary Jo continues a pattern familiar to sarcastic, adaptable Ava: Mom moves in, meets lout, shacks up, things go wrong, so mother and daughter move again—in one telling vignette, Ava introduces Mom to her “new best friend.” First-time director and cowriter Gavin O’Connor (who also plays Mary Jo’s new boyfriend) shoots his picture documentary-style—every scene seems happened upon, no one gets caught acting, and there’s almost no exposition. Tumbleweeds is a slender novella of a film, but it’s closely observed and honestly presented, and makes an implicit promise for what O’Connor—not to mention McTeer—will offer in the future.