[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, "Tumbledown," is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.]
A mismatched couple who hate each other. A roguish playboy who doesn’t know how to hold a relationship together. A free-spirited woman who could care less about love. A picturesque location bursting with sweeping vistas and postcard-ready waterways. A battle of wills (and barbed wit). The list goes on and on, but on paper, Sean Mewshaw’s "Tumbledown" sounds an awful lot like innumerable romantic comedies that have preceded it. The only difference? "Tumbledown" isn’t a romantic comedy.
Mewshaw’s film shares its DNA with other, far lighter fare, from "When Harry Met Sally" to "The Proposal" to "You’ve Got Mail" (and that’s just in the modern era), but the filmmaker’s feature directorial debut is more interested in exploring darker character traits and serious trauma than the majority of traditionally accepted romantic comedies (even romantic dramedies). By mining the expected and understood tropes that frame up the rom-com genre, Mewshaw finds a charming way to gently subvert the expected boy-meets-girl story to deliver something with a lot of heart (and even a fair bit of bite).
Co-written with his own wife, Desiree Van Til, Mewshaw’s film has all the bones of a good rom-com — and even some bad ones — care of storyline that’s readymade for romance. "Tumbledown" follows said roguish playboy Jason Sudeikis as music journalist Andrew McDonnell, who’s hellbent on writing the definitive version of the life and (mysterious) death of the lauded folk singer Hunter Miles.
Only trouble is, Hunter’s feisty widow Hannah (Rebecca Hall), has been working on her own version of the story for entire years, one she’s been unable to fully explore, partially because of her intense grief. Dead spouses are nothing new in the rom-com world, but that Mewshaw and Van Til steep the story in so much tragedy so early on — Hunter has been dead for years, but Hannah is pathologically unable to move on — makes it clear from the get-go that "Tumbledown" isn’t going to be an entirely hearts and flowers affair.
Driven by his desire to tell Hunter’s story, Andrew eventually makes his way to the small, sleepy and appropriately picturesque town where Hunter’s presence still looms large over everyone and everything (including, of course, Hannah). Mewshaw and Van Til aren’t interested in pushing Hannah and Andrew together via some syrupy meet-cute; instead, the two come to blows almost immediately, with Andrew desperately trying to understand why Hannah won’t let someone so passionate about her husband’s work tell his story, while she attempts to hide her own plans from him. There’s no escaping the (dead) elephant in the room, and it strips the romance right out of the storyline, even as Hall and Sudeikis exhibit a natural, easy chemistry with each other.
Hannah, of course, finally relents and allows Andrew the access he craves, and the pair decide to team up to write Hunter’s biography. The two remain bonded by a dead guy — still not very romantic! — as they develop a working relationship that soon moves into more romantic territory in the standard ways. (There’s music! The revelation of secrets! The meeting a family! And…some strange ex-lovers!).
Yet as the script slips into expected (though mostly well-earned territory), Mewshaw and Van Til continue to play with rom-com conventions by further building out their characters in surprising ways. Andrew isn’t just some man-about-town with a gal in every port; he’s a serious journalist who is genuinely obsessed with finding out the truth about Hunter. Hannah isn’t just some tough nut to crack who just needs the love of a good man to warm her up; she’s a damaged human with some serious secrets worth hiding. Although romance does eventually blossom between the two, it never becomes the defining trait for either character or for the film itself.
In fact, "Tumbledown" may eventually roll up into a romantic subplot, but something pretty out of the box remains its true heart: Work and the importance of finding an occupation that feeds the heart and the mind. That’s not the sort of idea (or idealism) we often see in films that also build in romance. Initially wary of each other because of their shared interest in a project, Hannah and Andrew eventually bond over that same project (again, one about her dead husband, of all things) and find renewal in the work it entails first (and each other second).
Romantic? Definitely. Comedic? Sometimes. Dramatic? Satisfyingly so.
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