Riding in Cars With Boys
Directed by Penny Marshall
Written by Morgan Upton Ward from the book by Beverly Donofrio
Starring Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn


Riding in Cars With Boys

The title - of the autobiography by Beverly Donofrio and the film directed by Penny Marshall - has in it both the tingling frisson of possible sex and the danger of its consequences; and then both book and film show us the ways in which they play out over subsequent years. Drew Barrymore plays Bev, who at fifteen is the disastrously insecure child of a straitlaced policeman father (James Woods) in Wallingford, Connecticut. She is the kind of girl who invites humiliation by crashing a party at which her football-player crush is the center of attention, giving him a poem she's written for him, and then hearing him make fun of her by reading it aloud to his cruel friends.

The boy who comes to her rescue is the sweet but dangerously unfocused Ray (Steve Zahn), and she quickly ends up pregnant by him. They marry, in a wedding scene that is both funny and heartbreaking, as she is insulted by her father until her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy) comes to her rescue and announces her own, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But with the marriage and the baby Bev sees her dream of college slip farther and farther away. The film, which is framed in a series of flashbacks from twenty years later, follows Bev, Ray, and her son Jason through those years.

Sweet Ray is soon lost to them, drinking heavily and then being consumed by a heroin addiction, and Zahn, in a brilliant performance, manages to keep our attention and even our unwilling affection as he causes more and more pain to the family. Barrymore, in her turn, refuses to give us the standard martyred wife and mother. Bev is self-absorbed, an unwilling parent who resents her child and lets him know it, and still is aware that by doing it she is hurting him needlessly. She has the insight to know what she does, but cannot stop herself.

The film maintains this almost dialectical structure, holding two contradictory themes - of love and resentment - in balance through a well-directed, well-written series of interactions that are dramatic but without melodrama, and so are all the more believable.

What is not believable, and does great harm to the film, is the framing device in which Bev, now 35, rides with her son Jason, now 20 and a college student, to visit Ray (as we learn late in the film). Jason is now played by the Australian actor Andy Garcia, who is 28 years old and looks every day of it. Barrymore, who is actually 26, handles the changes from 15 to 35 with reasonable success, but putting her in the long opening scene with Garcia, without explanation of who is who, makes it seem as though he is her current boyfriend. It is a bizarre choice of actor; surely there was someone who might have looked the part better than he.

Nevertheless there is so much good in this film that I don't want to carp at something as peripheral as this. Barrymore and, especially, Zahn give the best and most richly textured performances of their careers, and make the film eminently worth seeing.