If you’re looking for romance at the movies, try Tumbledown. It’s a love story between a man, a woman and a ghost. The unseen spirit is Hunter Miles, a folk singer-songwriter who produced one perfect album of 12 songs before retiring to Maine and dying. He either fell into a ravine while hiking on Tumbledown mountain or offed himself. You decide, the movie doesn’t. First-time director Sean Mewshaw and screenwriter Desi Van Til — they’re married — have decided, intriguingly, to craft a movie about loss and letting go. And they’ve done so with uncommon humor and heart.
OK, the setup is conventional. Hunter’s widow, Hannah (the ever sublime Rebecca Hall), is still living in her Maine hometown, two years after her husband’s death. Groupies make pilgrimages to his grave. “You’re Mr. Popular today,” she smirks. Hannah hasn’t given up on life. She writes columns for the local newspaper and enjoys getting it on with Curtis (Joe Manganiello), a muscular local not above penetrating Hannah even while she’s on the phone with her mother (Blythe Danner). What gets Hannah riled up is the arrival of Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a city slicker from New York who wants to write an academic tome about the artist that was Hunter. Hannah is livid. She screams and threatens to sue. That is until she realizes Andrew may be just the guy to help her write the definitive book on Hunter.
Complications ensue. Don’t they always. Andrew has a girlfriend (Dianna Agron) and Hannah has never really let go of Hunter. But just when you think that Tumbledown is going to follow the dots, it sets out for more delicate territory. Van Til’s astute script, based in part on her own experiences with loss, is deeply felt. A Maine girl herself, she’s from Farmington, Van Til never patronizes her characters. Danner, a legendary actress incapable of making a false move on screen, plays Hannah’s mother with just the right mix of tender and tough. This loving parent wants her daughter to move on, not to devote her life to a legacy represented by just 12 songs. Mewshaw directs the defensive banter between Hannah and Miles with an affinity for comic tone that never betrays the pain underneath. This is that rare movie that knows how to express the difference between depression and grief
Sudeikis, formerly a MVP on Saturday Night Live, excels as the academic who sometimes can’t see what’s right in front of him. Following his surprisingly subtle work in Sleeping With Other People, Sudeikis again shows real skills as an actor. Andrew’s struggle to articulate what Hunter’s songs make him feel illustrates what he lacks himself. Sudeikis is wonderfully funny and touching. And Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Town, Please Give), a British stage actress of remarkable range, plays Hannah with a robust energy that never hides the character’s aching fragility. In one scene, in the cabin where Hunter worked, she and Andrew discover a tape of what may be the last song this artist ever recorded. As Hannah listens, Hall lets her face reflect a lifetime. Her superb performance defines the word stellar. Cheers, too, for the music. Damien Jurado wrote and sang the songs that represent what we know of Hunter. And his sound is truly haunting. It needs to be. Ironically, It’s the music that brings Andrew and Hannah together. Andrew interprets it with a professional’s ear; she takes it all personally, as she must since she lived it. How you take it will help you measure the success of Tumbledown as a movie. I found it a provocation touched by magic.