At face value, Tumbledown is a fairly simple love story, a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a memory. But of course there’s rarely anything simple about love, and director Sean Mewshaw’s debut film is at its best when it takes the time to explore that. This is a romantic comedy with a profoundly serious side that it seems reluctant to indulge in, which is a shame because when the film decides to deviate from genre norms it feels truly honest and refreshing.
The film centers around the music of Hunter Miles, a folk singer who produced just one album in the woods of Maine before his death and has since become a musical icon. Hunter’s widow Hannah, played by Rebecca Hall (The Town), is attempting to work through her grief by writing a biography in his memory with little success when Andrew, portrayed by Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers), a college professor, comes to town looking to write his own book on influential musicians who died young. After butting heads, the two form an unlikely partnership to co-author Hunter’s biography, discovering how their pasts have shaped how they listen to his music, and how his songs will color their future.
Tumbledown’s success rides primarily on its leads, who thankfully don’t disappoint. The film’s script, written by Desiree Van Til, gives Andrew and Hannah the space to breathe and take on dimension. Hall brings to Hannah a ferocious vulnerability that is damaging to both her and those around her. Sudeikis brings his trademark wry humor to Andrew, but it’s balanced with a sense of decency that many of his earlier roles lacked. Hannah and Andrew are not designed to be wholly likeable, or even immediately compatible, but they are always, at their core, good people. Perhaps Tumbledown’s greatest accomplishment is that it manages to create genuine tension between two people who are both genuinely good-natured.
The core of Tumbledown is so strong, it’s hard not to get frustrated when the film veers off on tangents. Characters of little consequence float in and out to create additional barriers to Hannah and Andrew’s relationship. Hannah has a sex buddy named Curtis (Joe Manganiello, Magic Mike) who exists solely to challenge Andrew’s urban notion of manliness. But at least he has some personality, unlike Finley (Dianna Agron, Glee), Andrew’s music industry girlfriend who arrives in Maine to shake things up, only to quickly get drunk, pass out, and be forgotten. The film is filled with these meaningless distractions that crowd the main conflict and diminish other subplots that have more bite. Andrew and Hannah have a tense family dinner with Hannah’s mother (Blythe Danner, Meet the Parents), whose own grief over the loss of her son is at odds with her frustration at her daughter’s endless grieving.
While the film stumbles a bit in the plot department, it does get one crucial thing almost entirely right. Tumbledown’s folk infused score is excellent. Daniel Hart scores the film while singer/songwriter Damien Jurado becomes the ghost of Hunter Miles, contributing eight original songs. For a film whose soul is really in its music, Hart and Jurado have delivered tracks that feel worthy of the impact they’ve left on the characters. It’s worth listening to, even if you don’t see the film. You can check out two tracks from the film here.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Tumbledown is a film that doesn’t know how far off the beaten path it wants to trek. It’s at its best when it treads its own path through the woods of Maine, captured beautifully by Seamus Tierney’s cinematography. But Mewshaw never lets the film roam to far, always yanking back on the leash and veering things back towards a mainstream, true love fixes all problems narrative. But even if its plot feels familiar, Tumbledown’s strong leading performances make it worth watching, and, perhaps more so, its soundtrack makes it worth a listen.