Drew Barrymore and Brittany Murphy in 2001's "Riding in Cars with Boys."

Riding in Cars with Boys November 22, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Penny Marshall

STARRING

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

 

RATED

PG-13

RELEASED IN

2001

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 13 Mins.

I

s it possible to make it through one’s 20s unrattled by the persistent suspicion that life is somehow wasting away — that it’s somehow “too late” to achieve a long-coveted dream? Bev Donofrio (Drew Barrymore), the heroine of Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), is so familiar with both thoughts that they’re almost like tattoos. Raised in the Rockwell-esque Wallingford, Connecticut, by a straight-and-narrow

police chief (James Woods) and a warmhearted but deferential homemaker (Lorraine Bracco), Bev had envisioned herself from an early age as someone who would one day graduate from NYU and become a famous writer. We know she’s on to something early in the movie when we hear slivers of her words read aloud, first in a poem naïvely palmed to a meathead crush at a party, then in an apologetic letter to her parents. Her gifts are clear. 

 

But then Bev got pregnant at 15 by a troubled young man she’d wind up marrying named Ray (Steve Zahn) who, while fundamentally good-natured, would in a few years descend into alcoholism and heroin addiction. Then she’d drop out of high school and get her GED instead. Then she didn’t get into that university she’d for so long psychologically shrined in bright lights. Dreams would have to stay warm on back burners as she worked minimum-wage jobs to get by; at just 22, Bev bemoans to an old friend at a birthday party that she has yet to accept that this is her life, and wishes she were dumber so she could more cheerfully live with this fate. 
 

Anyone who has read the book the movie is based on — a bestselling memoir of the same name published by the not-fictional Donofrio in 1992, the year she turned 42 — knows all this won’t exclusively keep snowballing into feel-bad territory, though. Eventually Donofrio untethered herself from Ray, got the education put off for child-rearing, and wound up with a writing career that, if not completely living up to fantasy, was successful enough to engender a film adaptation of her life. 
 

That adaptation isn’t that great a movie. It’s particularly hampered by the weird excision of the pivotal late period of Donofrio’s life when she finally realized her dreams of becoming a professional writer (the period I was personally most interested in). In general it feels incurious about Donofrio’s creative identity, something inextricable from her self-conception but in the movie becomes almost an afterthought. Yet I was still moved by Riding in Cars with Boys, not because it’s straightforwardly inspiring but because it’s so empathetic toward, and refreshingly candid about, its characters, unusually unconcerned with making them likable. 
 

The general consensus among negative reviews of the movie upon its release was that Donofrio was a bad mother not worth rooting for. (She is not opposed to, in frustration, telling her tot of a son, Jason, that he has “ruined their lives” when he does something he’s too young to realize is categorically awful.) But that critical complaint misses what Riding in Cars with Boys is trying to achieve. It’s not working to be a heartening story about a sweet young mother who both did a great job with her son and happily got the dream career she eventually settled on. It isn’t trying to paint a touching portrait of a mother and son against the world á la Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), either. Marshall’s movie, subversively, compassionately dramatizes the acute pain of having one’s desires in life deferred again and again, and how, realistically, those frustrations can manifest unflatteringly. Mothers “sacrificing” their ambitions for their children is historically romanticized. Riding in Cars with Boys underlines the hurt underneath the romanticization with a character too emboldened by the articulation writing affords her to not be less than honest about her woes, for better and for worse.
 

Donofrio gets what she wants in the end, but Riding in Cars with Boys 

bracingly puts an acidicness in the chances of being unambiguously cheer-inducing. Her son doesn’t end the movie suddenly healed from much of his mother’s decision-making and brutal honesty. And Donofrio isn’t rendered faultless — a victim of bad circumstances purely “happening” to her. Barrymore, who ages from 15 to 35 in the course of the movie, does great work, vividly coming across as a barrel of pent-up energy trying hard not to split open as Donofrio. Even better are Zahn and Brittany Murphy as Donofrio’s best friend Fay, whose life unfolds almost as a mirror image of Bev’s but who doesn’t have anything like writerly goals galvanizing her toward anything “better.” 
 

Zahn could have played the character as a one-note fuck-up, but he ends up affecting, if frustrating, as an idler who can’t resist the temporary relief drugs and alcohol give him. (One of the film’s best scenes comes late in the film, when Donofrio and Jason visit the long-estranged Ray in the trailer he lives in with a cameoing Rosie Perez to sign off on some book-related documents; aside from the whirl of emotion and tension the scene keeps overhanging in the air, Zahn’s performance of contented defeatedness feels eerily real.) Murphy, too, might have been the sort of best friend character who serves as little besides a bastion of support. But she gives the character a spunk and palpable good-heartedness (Murphy has a couple of terrific monologues) that make her increasingly spaced-apart shards of screentime add up to something close to whole. How her work in Riding in Cars with Boys had an effect on me is actually sort of descriptive of the broader film: you wish it had more fullness to it, but its sense of heart and conviction are enough to stir something. B+