Adele (Susan Sarandon), a free-spirited teacher, takes her 14 year old daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) to Los Angeles in a gold-colored Mercedes. Ann resents her mother for taking her away from everything she knows, and she misses her family and friends in Wisconsin.
Adele dreams of a more glamorous life and wider opportunities for Ann. They struggle with each other and take care of each other until Ann leaves for college. Once Ann is ready to be on her own, she can admit to herself and to Adele how much she loves her.
Adolescence begins with it an avalanche of mortifying self-awareness. All of a sudden, everything is embarrassing, especially parents, in whose eyes teens can see their past more easily than their future.
This movie does a good job of portraying that stage of life from both the teen’s and the parent’s perspectives. In the first scene, Ann is embarrassed that Adele is eating so loudly, even though they are driving through the desert with no cars anywhere in sight.
Adele’s relish for more than she can find in Wisconsin is unsettling to Anne. Adele says, “I wish someone had kidnapped me back when I was your age,” and Ann responds, “So do I!” Part of Ann wants Adele to be the magical parent who can provide everything without effort. But when she begins to accept Adele’s mistakes and vulnerability, she can begin to grow up.
Adele seems to have endless optimism, leaving for Los Angeles on the strength of “an interview and a great outfit.” She blusters her way into a mansion by pretending to be a possible buyer. She forgets to pay the electric bill but is always ready to get some ice cream. Heartbreakingly, she thinks that a one-night stand with a dentist means that her true love has arrived.
As teens and parents struggle with independence through those years, it never seems that they are both ready to let go at the same time. Ann says that what keeps her going is knowing that someday she will leave Adele. A kindly policeman tells her that “you leave her when you are ready not to come back,” and that gives Ann an ideal of herself as an independent person to reach. Then, when she and Adele return to Wisconsin for a funeral, she sees how much closer to that ideal she has become than she would have if she had stayed.
Throughout the movie, Ann and Adele do a sort of relationship minuet, stepping toward each other, and then away. Ann imitates Adele in an acting audition, and Adele sees that she appears self-deluding and foolish to her daughter. Adele often acts more like Ann’s sister or even daughter than her mother. But when she needs to be the adult, to make the sacrifices necessary to help her child, she comes through.
Parents should talk about Ann’s decision to have sex with a boy who has a crush on her, which is more a reaction to a cool reception from the father who abandoned her than a reflection of a mature and intimate relationship. When she invites him over and tells him to take off his clothes, her words are tough, even cold, but when he walks over to her she throws her arms around him and holds him as though she is desperate for human contact.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Tumbleweeds.”