A young widow must decide if it’s time to stop grieving in Tumbledown, a sweet and gently comic tale set in small-town Maine. Grounded by an unromantic love for rural life and the haunting songs of Damien Jurado, the film makes room for lighthearted banter between Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis, who plays the academic digging into her deceased husband’s biography. First-timers Sean Mewshaw and Desi van Til show no evidence of inexperience in this sturdy and crowd-pleasing picture, which could easily connect with multiplex auds seeking grown-up but not somber fare.
The mystique of the artist who died far too young has inspired much mediocre fiction. Mewshaw and van Til avoid that fate in several ways, not least of which is their choice not to fill the film with references to the brilliance of art we never see or hear. The music of Seattle songwriter Jurado stands on its own while putting one in mind of musicians (think Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake) who fit the mode of the film’s fictional singer. This man, the adoring husband of Hall’s Hannah, recorded just one album before his death two years ago; the record attracted a cult of fans who make pilgrimages to his grave, while his early demise (whose details, somewhat unbelievably, were never made public) inspired journalists to write gossip-filled articles.
That mix of adoration and exploitation is the backdrop for the script’s second smart decision, which is to focus not on the singer’s legend but on the emotions of the wife protecting his memory. Having decided she’s the only one who can write his story, Hannah is furious at the efforts of a Manhattan American Studies professor (Sudeikis‘ Andrew, the kind of guy who lectures on Biggie Smalls and Kool Herc in tweed and tortoise-shell glasses). After some playful antagonism, though, Hannah realizes she’s too close to the material to make a book out of it; she hires Andrew to come stay in her lakeside Maine cabin and help write a proper biography.
The film’s action is just thorny enough not to feel like a meet-cute setup. Andrew has a believable but unsympathetic willingness to violate Hannah’s trust, and the movie’s clues that the songwriter might have killed himself balance lighter rom-com elements — like Hannah’s quizzical dogs playing Greek chorus, or the studly nature boy (Joe Manganiello) who stands in the way of any potential romance. Nice supporting performances, including one by Griffin Dunne as the small-town newspaperman who gives Hannah human-interest assignments, flesh out the movie’s credible, not overly quaint community nestled among beautiful low mountains. By the end, Tumbledown has earned its nature-as-healer metaphors, and its characters have finally liberated themselves from the myth of the Great Tortured Artist.
Production companies: Bron Studios, Hahnscape Entertainment
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Dianna Agron, Blythe Danner, Griffin Dunne, Joe Manganiello, Richard Masur
Director: Sean Mewshaw
Screenwriter: Desi van Til
Producers: Kristin Hahn, Aaron L. Gilbert, Margot Hand
Executive producers: Desi van Til, Mark Roberts, Sheldon Rabinowitz, Ross Jacobson, Jason Cloth, Alan Simpson, Jeff Uhl, Kelly Morel, John Raymonds
Director of photography: Seamus Tierney
Production designer: Jane Ann Stewart
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Sandra Adair, Suzy Elmiger
Music: Damien Jurado, Daniel Hart
Sales: Nick Ogiony, Laura Lewis, CAA
Rated R, 103 minutes