Riding in Cars with Boys and Girls

I read recently that Hollywood will be turning more toward human interest stories in the wake of the recent national terror, an acknowledgement that perhaps, just perhaps, the loss of human decency that has so marked Hollywood films over the last two decades might be having a negative effect on the culture. Imagine that.

It has been rare the last few years to find in Hollywood films what we have been seeing in foreign and independent films – intelligent stories about real people told with some measure of skill. The studios used to major in that sort of thing. Not lately. Now we tend to get implausible stories about dislikeable people told poorly, with dialogue written for semi-literate teenagers, and cinematography borrowed from MTV and perfume ads.

My expectations have sunk quite low, but perhaps things are about to change. Penny Marshall’s recent film Riding in Cars with Boys may offer some hope. The film tells the story of writer Beverly Donofrio, who got pregnant at age fifteen and was compelled to marry the father, a likable loser who tragically turns heroin addict. Donofrio, played adequately by Drew Barrymore, struggles to raise the boy and climb from the poverty of her life to achieve some measure of self-respect. The film follows this journey through the complex growing relationships between Donofrio and her policeman father (James Woods), her husband (Steve Zahn in a fine performance), and the young child, a boy.

Now like most films of the last twenty years that attempt to say something important, Riding in Cars with Boys is about a half-hour too long. In fact, Penny Marshall’s direction might be the worst performance in the whole film; yet Marshall does, at least until the very end, try to describe the human condition in the complexity of real living. The film has some powerful moments. In one, after Donofrio sends her husband and his drug problem packing, a very questionable decision, the boy runs out in the street calling for his father to take him with, and then collapses in heartbreaking tears inside the door of his house. We side with the boy and find ourself disliking Donofrio, the purported heroine. The film allows this.

Likewise, Drew Barrymore is never glamorized on the screen as, say, Julia Roberts in a somewhat similar (yet far worse, far preachier) film, Erin Brockovich. No one would see Riding in Cars with Boys and go out to buy a Drew Barrymore poster. This creative decision adds to the believability of the story and forces us to exam each character on a deeper level than how good they look in a swimsuit. Small consolation perhaps, but Hollywood has indeed sunk so low.

The film’s primary fault lies in its failure to show us how Donofrio climbed out of her mess by attending college over several years and eventually getting a masters in creative writing and then making it in the tough publication industry. We get as far as her decision to go it alone, without her husband, before the film flashes forward to her with a manuscript for a book in hand. Too bad, since that patient effort to climb through education and effort – reading and studying and writing essays and overcoming rejection – punctuated her achievement. People need to see that, not just the angst of broken relationships.

All in all, however, this film about a real person struggling with real life problems, flawed though it is, tells a story worth telling with an honesty rare these days. One only hopes that Hollywood follows through and offers us more of the same, and better.