PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Cars and boys. They go together in U.S. pop culture, and the celebratory images are unavoidable, from James Dean chicken-racing his hotrod to Steve McQueen zooming San Francisco hills to Jay Z bling-blingin’ in a Benz. Cars mean power, speed, and sex—and boys drive them.
It’s true that the sex part can get a little complicated, mainly because in traditional (i.e., conservative, simple, and someone-somewhere’s wishful thinking) iconography, boys are straight, and so they need girls to ride in the cars with them. This means that in conventional narratives, girls are mostly relegated to passenger status (that is, erotic object-plot device status), dedicated to helping boys to grow up.
This familiar story gets yet another go in Penny Marshall’s new film, Riding in Cars With Boys, only this time, the story focuses not on the boy but on the rider, a small town girl named Beverly, played by Drew Barrymore. Against considerable odds (namely, the episodic script by Morgan Upton Ward, based on Beverly Donofrio’s book), Barrymore brings warmth and passion to every moment she’s on screen (and they are many, as she ages from 15 to 35 during these two hours, almost convincingly). This showcasing of Drew has everything to do with her current golden girl status. This seems to me a good thing. Barrymore is an audacious survivor: at 26, she’s lived at least a couple of episodes worth of E! True Hollywood Story, what with her industry-infested childhood, addicted adolescence, and series of dangerous-looking relationships. And now this revisionist Cinderella has come out on total-top, as the power-princess of Flower Films (her production company), the brains behind Charlie’s Angels (whose success evidently surprised everyone), and, by all appearances, the sane and supportive wife of Tom Green (!).
In Riding in Cars, Barrymore plays to her strengths—her ability to seem at once disarmingly open, as well as poised, ironic, and above all, delighted to be living her life. Her Bev is lit up from inside, especially when she’s riding in cars with her girls, her school chums Fay (Brittany Murphy) and Tina (Sara Gilbert, whom, you’ll recall, Barrymore tongue-kissed in Poison Ivy). Unfortunately, the movie does tend to concentrate on the “boys” part of its title, as they are associated with her many hardships: getting pregnant and married at 15, struggling to finish school, working at quickie ice cream joints, and caring for her adorable-confused-resentful son, Jason (who, after a few very cute little boy actors, grows up to be Adam Garcia, last seen romancing Piper Perabo in Coyote Ugly, for which we might as well forgive him).
The first few scenes illustrate that even as a child, Bev (here played by Mika Boorem) is eager to get out of her hometown, Wallingford, Connecticut, and further, that the only means she can imagine for such escape is a boy. After dispensing a kissing lesson to her younger sister (Celine Marget) in the upstairs bathroom, Bev performs her ritual holiday duty—pick out the Christmas tree with her father (James Woods). Riding along the snowy streets with the tree tied to his cruiser’s roof, dad asks her to tell him what present she most wants. Bev pauses, knowing he doesn’t really want to know, then out it spills: she wants a bar, so she can win the heart of the most popular boy in her class, because otherwise, she’ll just die without him. “You can’t negotiate my boobs,” she declares. Unsurprisingly, dad puts the kebosh on this notion, pronto: “Keep your mind on books, not boys.”
At this point, Jason’s voice-over kicks in, observing, as his 11-year-old mother seems on the verge of tears, that this is why therapists make so much money: parents always screw up their kids. (And yes, he goes on to detail his own version of this well-known tale.) Jason notes that Bev survived this trauma, then proceeded to rebel against her father (and to a lesser extent, her mother, played by Lorraine Bracco) at every possible turn thereafter… except the books thing. Dear Bev knows, apparently innately, that this is her special gift, though her early efforts, read aloud to her sister, are teen-girlishly overwrought.
Such excessiveness may be genetic, as Jason’s periodic interruptions are more often distracting than helpful, though they do underline what might be understood as the film’s point: Bev is always going to be riding in cars with boys, no matter her mighty efforts toward independence. The problem is that Jason’s onscreen-as-an-adult sections chronicle his own similar efforts, and these are considerably less interesting than his mother’s at his age. (Specifically, he asserts, he wants to “leave her,” transfer from NYU to go live with his girlfriend in Indiana, yet is afraid Bev won’t let him; this doesn’t exactly coincide with what you come to know about her, but okay, he’s her kid and has his own issues.) While the contrivance of Jason’s narrating and driving is sort of cute at first (because Bev and Jason are so close in age, you’re apt to mistake them for a couple), after a few transitions, it’s less so, mainly because it becomes clear that its purpose is to situate Bev between men, again. There is no escape.
The man who most cares for and suffocates Bev is her father (and Woods is excellent here—low-key paternal, non-neurotic, suitably oppressive). Because he’s the local 5-0, there’s not much that goes on in Wallingford that he doesn’t know about. And so, throughout Bev’s adolescence and into young adulthood, he’s always somewhere nearby, ready to bust her smoking cigarettes or making out in cars: whenever she even attempts to step outside the lines, she’s pretty much stopped in her tracks.
Since the film doesn’t take Bev’s point of view, it can show you perspectives and events she doesn’t necessarily know about, like the time little Jason turns her in to her dad for selling pot. More interestingly, its vision of her is increasingly complicated. While Riding in Cars doesn’t shy away from showing and making comedy out of Bev’s own bad choices, it also clearly endorses her will to escape from this dim existence with which all the boys around her—her father, husband, and son—seem just fine. (That Bev never imagines her way into driving herself anywhere is a little disappointing. I understand that the titular metaphor demands that she ride, but still…)
At the same time, the movie suggests that everyone really does mean well—no one here comes off a villain, precisely, just uninspired or clueless. Even Bev’s no-count husband, Ray, a terrifically irresponsible and self-destructive heroin addict, seems to be not such a bad guy, mainly because he’s played by Steve Zahn, who makes it all but impossible to hate on him. This generosity of spirit—typical of director Penny Marshall’s work—makes Riding in Cars less edgy (or progressive) than it might have been. I mean, when was the last time that you saw a movie where a protagonist’s heroin addiction is treated as a kind of inexplicable “character flaw,” never even pictured on screen (except for a brief, G-rated detox scene), even though it adversely affects everyone around him (including his next girl, played by Rosie Perez in full-on bitch mode)?
I’m not suggesting that drug addiction needs to be the focus of every film where it shows up, but it can be helpful to see some context for it, economic, emotional, whatever. Here, it’s reduced to a plot device—one more reason for Bev to feel both stuck and desperate to get out of town. More sadly, it’s also a mechanism used to display her ostensible forte, her infinite capacity for forgiveness and support. Because she’s a woman, the film submits, this is what she does. The one bit of “good” advice that Ray is finally, after many years, able to offer his estranged son Jason is precisely this: “Women want to forgive… It’s in their nature.” Lucky for boys.