Tumbleweeds (1999 film)

Tumbleweeds is a 1999 American comedy-drama film directed by Gavin O'Connor. He co-wrote the screenplay with his then-wife Angela Shelton, and inspired by her memories of a childhood spent on the road with her serial-marrying mother. It stars Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown and Jay O. Sanders.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byGavin O'Connor
Produced byGreg O'Connor
Written byGavin O'Connor
Angela Shelton
StarringJanet McTeer
Kimberly J. Brown
Gavin O'Connor
Jay O. Sanders
Music byDavid Mansfield
CinematographyDan Stoloff
Edited byJohn Gilroy
Distributed byFine Line Features
Release date
  • November 24, 1999 (1999-11-24)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,350,248[1]


The story revolves around Mary Jo Walker, a single mother whose usual reaction to trouble is to pack her car with her belongings and take her pre-teen daughter Ava in search of greener pastures. The film commences with a strong-willed Mary-Jo in an altercation with a man. As this is something which is routine in Ava's life, she packs a suitcase as she prepares herself for their inevitable departure.

Mother and daughter embark upon a journey. When a reunion with an old beau in Missouri proves to be less successful than anticipated, Mary Jo accedes to Ava's desire to see the Pacific Ocean and heads west. Mary Jo wishes to separate herself from her old life, which is manifested when she and her daughter throw the former's clothing from the car window. En route they are assisted by long-distance trucker Jack Ranson, who coincidentally re-enters their lives after they have settled in San Diego. Once again, Mary Jo forgoes both her independence and daughter's well-being in favor of having a man in her life. She quits her office job. On face value, Ava's life has changed for the better. For example, she makes friends with a girl in her class (although they later part ways when the girl becomes jealous of Ava's acting talents). Ava also secures a starring role as Romeo in the school play, "Romeo and Juliet". Lastly, Ava is ecstatic when she finds a boyfriend, who takes her to watch a movie. Matters, however, become complicated when Jack becomes verbally aggressive towards Mary Jo. Jack exhibits his true personality when he takes Mary Jo and Ava to a fine dinner and becomes infuriated by Ava's attitude. Ava, however, is just excited about the prospect of having a leading role in the play.

When Ava and Mary Jo flee the restaurant, they spend the night in a motel, a scenario with which both mother and daughter are familiar. The next day, Mary Jo is adamant that the two leave town, with only their clothing on their backs. Ava decides to put her foot down and rebel. She tells her mother that she is tired of moving from state to state and is frustrated by her mother's carefree attitude. Although Mary Jo is at first furious at Ava's refusal to cooperate, Mary Jo then realizes that there is the need to make significant changes in their lives. She finally accepts that her behavior has had severe negative repercussions on her daughter.

Toward the end of the movie, Ava and her mother stay at a house that a friend of Mary Jo's has loaned to them. Ava rebuilds her friendship with the same girl in her class. Lastly, both she and her mother start to rebuild their lives together. Mary Jo gets a job at a plant nursery and also moves in with her former office boss, a sympathetic widower who had been concerned about them.


The film was shot on location in Agoura Hills, North Hollywood, Malibu, and the Eagle Rock neighborhood in Los Angeles.

The soundtrack includes "Private Conversation" by Lyle Lovett, "My Heart Skips a Beat" by Buck Owens, "One of These Days" by Emmylou Harris, "One Night Stand" by Lucinda Williams, and "Sea of Heartbreak" by Johnny Cash.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival before opening in Los Angeles and New York City on November 24, 1999.


Critical reception

Tumbleweeds holds a rating of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 68 reviews. The site's consensus states: "Strong performances add authenticity and depth."[2]

In his review in the New York Times, Stephen Holden said the film "is a modestly produced slice of Americana. But its central performances are so extraordinarily nuanced and the screenplay so perfectly attuned to the twang and beat of everyday speech that in places the movie feels like a documentary . . . There are many moments when what is on the screen stops looking like acting and becomes life itself, and you're watching real people change and grow before your eyes."[3]

Glenn Lovell of Variety wrote, "Powered by uncommon rapport between its femme leads and helmer's roughhewned sensibility, pic has what it takes to become the year's first heartfelt sleeper . . . [it] has topnotch production values and a strong supporting cast going for it."[4]

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack observed, "Tumbleweeds is far from a slick Hollywood-style production. It's not encumbered, for one thing, by star power . . . [and] its lack of stars becomes part of its charm . . . The interplay between Mary Jo and Ava is the film's great treat. They seem utterly natural together, bound by mother-daughter ties that are complex, touching, ultimately so powerful they yield the kind of tearful joy rarely experienced at the movies."[5]

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, "McTeer and Brown make magic in a film that is wonderfully funny, touching and vital."[6]

Awards and nominations


  1. "Tumbleweeds (1999)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 19, 2013.
  2. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1093901_tumbleweeds
  3. "Tumbleweeds review". NYTimes.com. Retrieved December 19, 2013.
  4. "Tumbleweeds review". Variety.com. Retrieved December 19, 2013.
  5. "Tumbleweeds review". SFGate.com. Retrieved December 19, 2013.
  6. "Tumbleweeds review". RollingStone.com. Retrieved December 19, 2013.
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