Janet McTeer's sterling lead performance in "Tumbleweeds" wholly deserves its Academy Award nomination. Unfortunately, her movie's absence from every other category is almost as valid.
Adapted from the memoirs of Angela Shelton (also the film's co-writer and one of its executive producers), the mostly mediocre "Tumbleweeds" casts McTeer as Mary Jo Walker, a tattered but titillating Southern flower who attaches herself to all the wrong men. When we first see her, she's fleeing an abusive relationship in Tennessee, packing her belongings and her 12-year-old daughter, Ava (Kimberley J. Brown), into a car to start their lives anew in California.
There, Mary Jo lands a humdrum job in the office of an alarms-system company and takes up with Jack Ranson (Gavin O'Connor), a truck driver who's the latest in her long string of poorly chosen beaus. Ava knows that Jack is bad news; why, she wonders, doesn't her mother share her prepubescent wisdom?
Despite its literary foundation, the inverted mother/child scenario is uncomfortably close to those in last year's Anywhere But Here and "Luminous Motion." As long as McTeer is on the screen, the similarities are easy to overlook. Hiding her British roots in a flawless Dixie accent, she revels in Mary Jo's sarcastic asides, then balances them with sophisticated moments of soulful reflection. She finds strong support in Brown, whose concerned chiding never succumbs to brattiness. (A budding talent, Brown was supplanted by Haley Joel Osment as the Academy's 1999 golden child.)
The rest of "Tumbleweeds" doesn't hold up to such scrutiny. O'Connor -- who directed the film, co-wrote its screenplay and acted as another of its executive producers -- gives himself little to do as Jack, a pool-hall pick-up whose inadequacies as a lifemate and surrogate father are scant surprise. Dan (Jay O. Saunders), one of Mary Jo's quieter co-workers, shuffles about in the background, coming to the fore whenever earnest support is required. If she can't realize that this ersatz Ron Perlman is the man she's supposed to pursue, she must not be watching enough TV.
Mary Jo's travails are closer to tube fodder than reality: Her violent boyfriends all disappear as soon as she moves out of their lodgings, never to resurface in the story. (Ask any victim of domestic battery if her tormentor was as easy to shake.) But there's no need for them to stick around when the script is there to beat up on her. Led by the "sensible" Ava, Mary Jo's loved ones convince her that her cross-country flight denotes an inability to fully commit to a new environment. As far as we can see, she's only trying to avoid being smacked around. A kid like Ava will always put stability ahead of self-preservation; adult filmmakers should know better.