Most mainstream studio movies have so little interest in popular music either as an art or a business that it often falls to the indie sector to bang the drum, as it were, for that art form. It’s an ongoing disappointment, then, that so many indie movies are in the thrall of solo acoustic troubadourship. The folksier, more restrained, and less ornate the better; for a movie like Tumbledown, indie rock never happened. There was just a straight line from Nick Drake to Elliott Smith, and running in parallel, another one from Once to Song One to Jackie & Ryan, and so on.
Further down that line is where you might find Hunter Miles, a fictional deceased one-album musician, and Tumbledown. Hunter moved up to the Maine hometown of his wife Hannah (Rebecca Hall) before dying young and unexpectedly (Damien Jurado provides the tastefully fabricated work he left behind). The movie catches up with Hannah in grief-maintenance mode. She cleans up his trinket-adorned gravesite and tends to her two dogs (the movie hits dog-reaction-shot overload within about ten minutes). When Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a Hofstra professor, tracks her down for a writing project about Hunter Miles, she eventually and reluctantly agrees to collaborate with him on a biography.
Andrew is a Hunter Miles fanboy-scholar, and suspects his death may not have been accidental, though not much comes of this hastily introduced story thread or its thin motivation. Writer-director Sean Mewshaw has some intriguing ideas about the baggage dead artists leave behind for both their family and their fans, and bringing one person from each side to collaborate on a biography is a smart way to explore that contrast. Or it would be, if that contrast didn’t weirdly position Andrew’s native New York as some kind of ultimate college town, and small-town Maine as, well, a great, authentic place for a true artistic soul to write super-boring acoustic guitar songs. Seriously, I love guitars, but has any director of these recent indie sorta-musicals ever heard anything recorded with a synth? Or drums? Or amps? This movie celebrates the inimitable artistic mark made by people who sound like a poor man’s Bon Iver.
Anyway, despite the music appreciation, the point here is really for Andrew and Hannah to connect. Hall, so often sad and empathetic on screen, has more “spunk,” as the movie puts it, than expected for a role that invites moping. Sudeikis has the misfortune of following his fine, funny performance in the excellent Sleeping with Other People with another part as a genial, banter-loving wisecracker; he essentially gives his Sleeping performance over again, minus the lothario business, and also minus the great dialogue for him to riff casually over. Moreover, Hannah and Andrew never seem particularly surprised by their growing attraction, even when the movie barely bothers to dramatize it. They seem resigned to falling in love.
Hall and Sudeikis have one genuinely romantic scene together, not far from the film’s end, standing on the edge of a frozen lake. Spoiler alert: it spills over into the kind of action tweedier types would refer to as “lovemaking,” and an immediate pivot back into ginned-up conflict. This does lead to one of the movie’s other brief highlights: a shot of Sudeikis blasting music in his car, oblivious to Hall, visible through the car window, approaching. It’s not a coincidence that the music playing in this scene is not mournful acoustic guitar strumming. Despite its earnest charms, Tumbledown is the type of movie that explores its themes and touchstones so insistently that you start to hunger for any alternative to acoustic guitars or overcoming grief. It might, by the end, having you rooting for grief to score a long-overdue win.