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Cinema: Travels with Mommy

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

A flaky mom, restless with unrealized dreams. A wise child, stubbornly asserting the reality principle. An old car and an open road at the end of which all the problems they’re running away from reassert themselves, largely in the form of feckless males.

It is one of feminism’s Ur-legends, the stuff of countless contemporary novels and films. The question is, How do you color outside its lines, give the story a little waywardness, while at the same time imparting to it the honest weight of felt experience?

The answer to that question may be: Keep it authentic, keep it modest, keep it hopping. That’s what happens in Tumbleweeds; that’s what doesn’t happen in Anywhere but Here. If you follow the form charts, it should have been otherwise. The latter film has the big stars (Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman), the name creators (director Wayne Wang of The Joy Luck Club; writer Alvin Sargent, adapting the best-selling novel by Mona Simpson), a capacious budget. What it doesn’t have is a central figure you can give a hoot about.

Sarandon’s Adele August is running away from nothing very much–a boring small-town life and boyfriend–and she’s not running toward much either–a dopey dream that life in Beverly Hills is bound to be more exciting. She is one of those irritating people who cover wrongheadedness with eccentric excess. This is supposed to be charming, but it is merely tiresome. Portman pouts prettily at Adele’s all too predictable capers–naturally she forgets to pay the utility bills, misreads her daughter’s dreams and that handsome orthodontist’s intentions. But you can feel these beats coming–thump, thump–a mile off, and Wang’s inert direction does nothing to enliven their inevitable arrival.

Meantime, down the coast, near San Diego, Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), having survived a more problematical journey west, struggle much more realistically for survival in Tumbleweeds. Mary Jo is fleeing an abusive marriage (her fourth), but can’t quite escape her taste for sexy, damaged guys. In a film that moves with an easy, unforced pace, she settles in with a truck driver (played by director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor) who’s good in bed but damply insistent on clockwork routine outside it. She has a job that matches her relationship–too much filing–and a daughter who fills her good-to-bursting heart.

Ava keeps mice, plays Romeo (that’s not a misprint) in the school play, and though occasionally exasperated by her mother, adores her funky, spunky spirit. As do we, for McTeer, the English actress who stunned Broadway in A Doll’s House two seasons back, is a wonder–sweet and fierce, a creature of good instincts and bad (but reparable) judgments. She’s probably never going to get anywhere very grand, but she’s going to get there intact. You suspect her child–her only true love–may do better than that. Meantime, we have this movie–full of acceptant, sidelong glances at human quirkiness–to delight us.

–By Richard Schickel

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