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The unexpected death of an obscure musician with a devoted fanbase leaves his young wife accounting for his passing up in the woods of Maine where the artist composed his one masterwork, a profound folk debut album that touches many. Into town arrives a writer looking to tell his story, but is met with rebuttals when he hopes to learn more from her, she planning to honor the singer’s past in her own way.
Hannah (Rebecca Hall) tells us from the start that things have not gone as she hoped, with a few years passed since her husband Hunter Miles (never seen but songs written and performed by Damien Jurado) died, she has yet to truly move on, partially due to the legacy of his 12-song album that has become a kind of lost treasure for enthusiasts. She tends to his grave, still attracting fans, and goes about her life, living in the same house they once shared. She is well known in the town, friends and family are protective of her, wanting her to find her way. But that’s where the similarities to the typical romantic movie widow ends. Hannah is actually an upbeat woman, content with much in her life, is sexually active with a stop-by lover who is Neanderthalic at best but satisfies her physically. She is remorseful, misses her husband, but she is not one-dimensional in service of the story. “You spend your whole life trying not to die, and then when something terrible happens, you wish it was you and not them.” This is the essence of Hannah.
Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) is an associate professor from Hofstra, writing about musicians who have died too young, wanting to devote a chapter to Hunter, driving from New York City to Maine to interview some of the townspeople and hopefully Hannah. What he discovers is a woman tired of the tabloid-like journalists who don’t want Hunter’s story but rather the circulation it will bring their publications. She assumes Andrew is cut of the same cloth, but when she reads a passage of his writing (after ripping up and throwing in the street many other pages), she recognizes an earnestness in his approach, an authenticity to his admiration of her husband’s work. Indeed he is. Andrew is a kind and considerate character, truly moved by passionate music and touched by what little he knows of Hunter, and even more so by the woman the singer married.
Andrew is also convinced that what he hears in Hunter’s music is much deeper than the words imply and based on the circumstances of his death, believes his music and death not an accident but a well-constructed farewell and suicide, this despite the fact that from all he interviews, it was not. During all of this, Andrew falls in love.
This is where Tumbledown shines brightest. The affect of Hunter on these two people is profound, Hannah sinking deeper into a pit of guilt and denial while wearing the brave face; Andrew misdirected by the man’s music but swooning more for the inspiration behind it. There’s nothing artificial in this relationship, no dramatic moments of one shouting to the other in great confession or over-the-top public displays of affection that so often populate films like this. It is simply two people in time, meeting and feeling something special about it.
Sudeikis is a marvel, moving away from the comedy that has defined him and rightfully into the leading man he is proving to be the better fit. He plays Andrew with great sincerity, grounded and like an open book. The transformation from confident and curious to vulnerable and achingly enraptured is supremely done, with nuance and minimalism. A moment by the shore of a frozen lake, when he is too overcome by the story of it all, the weight of it all, and the hope he cradles, is particularly moving and example of how this film stands apart.
Directed by Sean Mewshaw, in his feature film debut, Tumbleweed is a quiet film, reminiscent of David Gordon Green‘s magnificent All The Real Girls, dialogue heavy and trusting of its audience to see past the trappings of the genre. Mewshaw, who also wrote the story, never once plays into the cliches, refusing to let the city slicker in the country trope rear its ugly head, populating the rural village with intelligent, multi-dimensional people who bring depth to the town rather than paint it in thin stereotypes. There are some unneeded characters, such as Andrew’s city girlfriend (played by Dianna Agron) who is a thankless role, though even she is authentic, never overplaying a jealous woman with outrageous behavior so we feel better about the inevitable breakup. Blythe Danner plays Hannah’s mother, and while her appearance is brief, she has a wonderful moment with Andrew that truly resonates.
Tumbledown is a gentle film that, much like how Andrew comes to feel about Hannah, is surprising. While its beginning is its weakest, the film lays roots quickly and thanks largely to the great work by Sudeikis and Hall, builds to a wonderfully touching and refreshingly honest romance.
Movie description: The unexpected death of an obscure musician with a devoted fanbase leaves his young wife accounting for his passing up in the woods of Maine where the artist composed his one masterwork, a profound folk debut album that touches many.
Director(s): Sean Mewshaw
Actor(s): Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Blythe Danner