Riding in Cars with Boys
review by Gregory Avery, 26 October 2001

"It's gross!" exclaims Beverly, the character played by Drew Barrymore in Riding in Cars With Boys, and it's not the sound of a girl yelping just for the sake of doing so. Beverly, so to speak, has had a snootful.

At fifteen, living and attending high school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Connecticut in 1965, she has become pregnant and has decided to have the baby, even though her father (James Woods) acts as if he's been betrayed by his daughter for not being a "nice girl" and for becoming sexually mature. (Earlier, he could not even bring himself to addressing the matter of her developing from a child to an adolescent.) Ray (Steve Zahn), the young guy who fathered the child, takes responsibility and proposes to marry Beverly. They wind up in a bungalow on a cul-de-sac, Ray becomes erratic at work and in his comings and goings, and Beverly needs help to do simple household chores as she becomes bigger than a house. She sees her friends go on to attend the senior prom, and to graduate. When her embryonic fluid makes a mess on the bathroom floor, you can tell that Beverly's just about had it: this is not what she expected, it is not fun, and she wants to go back to something way less icky and uncomfortable, but she's stuck with this, anyway, and she's going to have to handle it.

The film overall turns out to be flawed, but it is pleasing to report that Drew Barrymore gives her first fully-realized performance as an adult character in Riding in Cars With Boys. One of the best things about her performance and the film is how it shows things changing incrementally rather than in broad, dramatically-familiar strokes. Beverly has to take small steps into the territory of having and raising a child and, later, doing it on her own, putting up with all the attendant indignities and making the necessary decisions, while still holding on to whatever dreams or aspirations she may have, whether they be becoming a writer or finding a better place to live. She has to live with her growing son, Jason, as a "team", not in the conventional mother-child relationship. For his part, we can see at the same time how Jason senses he's missing out on something but doesn't fully understand why -- why, for instance, his father has to exit the family picture. (Steve Zahn, initially, and to one's horror, looks like he's going to be reprising his dumber-than-dirt Roscoe Ates routine from Happy, Texas and Forces of Nature, but, fortunately, he does not, and gives one of his best performances in years.) The result is a quietly-accrued stockpile between mother and son which spans back for years. The film's main story is framed by a car trip which Beverly takes with the grown Jason (Adam Garcia), and Barrymore gives Beverly in these scenes a round-featured, self-made look that hints at a person who's acquired a tough hide underneath while also having to be able to bounce from one situation to the next, as needed. You want to know how someone who looks like that developed from the one, still with some baby fat clinging to her cheeks, who is seen earlier at a wedding reception where she sits, like a firing range target, at a table because nobody can think of how to approach her and offer congratulations under the particular circumstances.

The director Penny Marshall, working from a screenplay adaptation of a memoir by Beverly Donofrio, is more of a compassionate director than a hard-nosed observer, and she tends to work in little enlightening, corrective, and therapeutic messages into the narrative regarding girls needing to stand up for themselves and for each other, how they need to be nurturers, their self-growth potential, and the importance of family relationships. The material also seems softened, so that it never comes off as being too grating or sandpapery to the audience's sensibilities. (Marshall just recently revealed, though, that the film went through a rushed, forced post-production, which accounts for many of the jumps and gaps that occur as the film unfolds, as well as, possibly, the tiny appearance made late in the film by Rosie Perez.) "When does this job ever end?" Beverly says at one point about mothering, while, at another, crying that she's "screwed up", prompting Jason to instantly disagree, even though we know that he sees life with Beverly involves everything revolving around her. "You gotta tell them you need help," Ray says slyly to his adult son, so, when Jason does ask his mother for help, Beverly unstintingly asks, fully ready to be supportive and unselfish, "What's wrong?"

The film may lean in the direction of becoming sappy. But it never really becomes sappy, and it also has a number of genuinely fine moments -- a beautiful reconciliatory closing scene, and one where Beverly and her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy), both many months with-child, touch tummies together and allow themselves to become momentarily jazzed over having kids at the same time. (Murphy, much less dour, here, than in Don't Say a Word, is looking to turn into quite an actress.) I will refrain from using the term "bumpy ride" (it is banished, the same way Susan Traherne banished the word "Suez" in Plenty), but suffice to say that Riding in Cars With Boys has plenty of things in it to enjoy, and a performance by Drew Barrymore that will, hopefully, be the first of many more, fine ones to come.

Directed by:
Penny Marshall

Starring:
Drew Barrymore
Steve Zahn
Brittany Murphy
Adam Garcia
Lorraine Bracco
James Woods

Written by:
Morgan Upton Ward

Rated:
PG13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.

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