In rough outline, Gavin O'Connor's "Tumbleweeds" sounds like very familiar terrain: the road pic/coming-of-age number in which an unlucky-in-love mother and precocious child bond through adversity. Haven't Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and Michael Caton's "This Boy's Life" gone this route before? Yes, but that shouldn't hurt this exuberant indie's chances at b.o. Pic has what it takes to become the year's first heartfelt sleeper.

In rough outline, Gavin O’Connor’s “Tumbleweeds” sounds like very familiar terrain: the road pic/coming-of-age number in which an unlucky-in-love mother and precocious child bond through adversity. Haven’t Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and Michael Caton’s “This Boy’s Life” gone this route before? Yes, but that shouldn’t hurt this exuberant indie’s chances at b.o. Powered by uncommon rapport between its femme leads and helmer’s roughhewned sensibility, pic has what it takes to becomes the year’s first heartfelt sleeper.

Set mostly in San Diego and taken from an autobiographical story by Angela Shelton (credited as co-scenarist), pic also has topnotch production values and a strong supporting cast going for it. Helmer O’Connor, who appears in a key supporting role, can be likened to John Sayles. Only O’Connor’s approach is decidedly more viewer-friendly, making him a stronger bet for mainstream acceptance.

Janet McTeer and Kimberly J. Brown topline as, respectively, oft-wed Mary Jo Walker and her 12-year-old daughter, Ava (named for the movie star), who knows Mom like a book. When things turn sour in an abusive relationship, Mary Jo yells, “Pack your things — we’re movin’!” and lights out for another state and another former beau. Said scenario plays out in opening scene, with Mary Jo and Ava skipping town for, first, Missouri, and then San Diego. In transit, they meet “Marlboro Man” trucker Jack (O’Connor).

And so stage is set for yet another start, with new job, new school, new best friends. In a twist on the formula, Ava has a remarkably easy time fitting in, even winning a lead in the school play. Perpetually horny Mom doesn’t fare as well: She runs afoul of her weirdo boss (Michael J. Pollard) and shacks up with Jack, who turns out to be just as controlling and moody as her ex.

Throughout this familiar-sounding meller, O’Connor and his cast zig when you expect them, per the formula, to zag. Unlike characters in, say, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” Ava is not only smart but well-adjusted and Jack, though mean-spirited, makes a stab at domesticity.

Brit legit star McTeer, in her U.S. screen debut, is a revelation as happily uncouth good-ol’-gal who, despite lousy judgment, dearly loves her daughter. Brown, already a TV-stage vet, plays Eva as both naturally curious-about-sex adolescent and disapproving parent figure. Rapport between the two, during up times and down, is something special to behold. In one especially moving scene, Mary Jo cradles her devastated child, and O’Connor wisely lets his camera run.

Lois Smith appears as a secretary friend who unwittingly encourages Mary Jo’s worst habits, and Jay O. Sanders is the nice-guy at the office who helps her break her destructive wed-and-run pattern by proffering something new: friendship. Ashley Buccille and Cody McMains are charming without working at it as Ava’s drama-class friend and her first boyfriend.

Shot on the run in 24 days, pic seldom betrays its meager budget. Dan Stoloff’s lensing furthers gritty, blue-collar tone, and David Mansfield’s country-rock music underscores pic’s feisty, stand-your-ground theme.

Tumbleweeds

Production

Produced by Greg O'Connor. Executive producers, Ted Demme, Joel Stillerman, Greg O'Connor, Gavin O'Connor, Thmomas J. Mangan IV. Directed by Garvin O'Connor. Screenplay by Gavin O'Connor, Angela Shelton from a story by Angela Shelton.

With

Mary Jo Walker - Janet McTeer Ava Walker - Kimberly J. Brown Jack Ranson - Gavin O'Connor Dan Miller - Jay O'Sanders Ginger - Lois Smith Laurie Pendleton - Lolloman Mr. Cummings - Michael J. Pollard Vertis Dewey - Noah Emmerich Zoe Broussard - Ashley Buccille Adam Riley - Cody McMains
Camera (color, Fotokem), Dan Stoloff; editor, John Gilroy; sound (Dolby), Chen Harpaz; music, David Mansfield; production designer, Bruce Eric Holtshousen; costume designer, Mimi Maxmen; casting, Todd Thaler. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (dramatic competition), Jan. 24, 1999. Running time: 104 min.
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