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‘Driveways’ Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
By David Fear, rollingstone.com May 14, 2020 12:45PM
The modest story of a mother, her son and an elderly neighbor feels like a salve right now
—and gives Brian Dennehy a deserving swan song.
Understated yet powerful, Driveways is a character study anchored
in fundamental decency -- and a poignant farewell to Brian Dennehy. --
Rotton Tomatoes What resonates is the movie's
understanding of how we come and go through life, of how a house becomes a home, of how even the
smallest acts of kindness can open doors that never quite close. -- Roxana Hadadi (Pajiba)
"For a movie about isolation and the risk of reaching out, it's a generous example of how
nourishing a sense of connection really is."
You might be craving those loud, brash, blowed-up-real-good blockbusters that’d normally lay claim
to half the screens of multiplexes this month. It’s almost the beginning of summer, and who has the
willpower to fight that seasonal Pavlovian urge? (Just watch out for any action movie in which A-list
stars are in a race against time with a killer virus. Still too soon.) Or maybe, during this particularly dark
timeline we’re stuck in, you’re in need of something more intimate, intricate and attuned to human
interactions — “smaller” portraits of person-to-person connections that feel way too scarce in real life
these days. It’s tough out there. We have a tonic for you.
Driveways, Andrew Ahn’s family drama that hit VOD
and virtual cinemas last weekend, would be worth seeking out even if we weren’t in the middle of a
global catastrophe; it’s the sort of modest, unassuming independent
film that reminds you why, several decades and underground revolutions later, such things remain a
viable alternative and a necessity. Essentially three elliptical character studies gently bouncing off each
other, you can classify the story under the heading “Nothing happens, except life.” It’s mournful
by nature, but it ain’t heavy — it’s so delicate, in fact, that you worry a slight breeze might knock it
sideways. But the director’s sophomore feature brims with so many
tender mercies, so many quietly observed moments, that even its light touch leaves a mark.
Timing is everything. Had you caught this during its festival run in 2019, you’d recognize it as a first-
rate lo-fi showcase for one young newcomer, one eminence grise and one just-north-of-breakthrough
star. See it now, and it feels like a salve.
Kathy (Watchmen‘s Hong Chau) has been tasked with cleaning out her late sister’s house, deep
in the suburbs of New York’s Hudson Valley. Her reluctant companion is her eight-year-old son
Cody (Lucas Jaye),
who she calls “Professor.” She hadn’t talked to her sibling in years; it isn’t until the duo arrive at the
place that Kathy even realizes her estranged family member was a hoarder. Neither
mother nor son particularly want to be there. Cody doesn’t really want to be
anywhere — he’s the kind of shy, recessive kid who’s happy to keep to himself. The idea is to get the
place ready to sell and then get out of Dodge. In the meantime, they move in and bide their time.
Living next to them is Del (Brian
Dennehy), an elderly widower who watches the
world pass by from the perch of his porch. It isn’t that he views these new next-door neighbors with
suspicion, exactly (though the baseball cap that identifies him as a Korean war vet initially makes you
wonder if there may be lingering anti-Asian prejudices). It’s more that Del is a man
who likes his routine, and isn’t fond of strangers in general. Still, when his friend forgets to pick
him up for their afternoon bingo game at the V.F.W., Kathy gives him a ride. And
when Cody has to duck out of a playdate with two knucklehead boys,
Del lets him stay at his house until his mom comes home. They bond over barfing
stories (the kid has a nervous stomach) and go to the library. He invites the old guy to his birthday
party. A tentative friendship between these two loners starts to form.
As with Ahn’s debut movie, the
coming-of-age-and-coming-out tale Spa Night (2016), the mode here is casual, yet almost voyeuristic in the way it captures the interactions
between these three everyday people. He has a great eye for tiny but
telling details, like the way Cody anxiously picks a sticker on a hardware store’s
counter; ditto a shot in which you see first Del’s giant paw and then the boy’s small
hand dip into a bowl of popcorn. Bits of backstory are dropped like breadcrumbs — she’s
studying to be a nurse; Cody’s social awkwardness isn’t new; there’s a reason the
sisters weren’t close — yet neither Ahn
nor screenwriters Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are precious about filling (or not
filling) in the blanks. Even the broader characters that hover on the periphery, notably Christine Ebersole’s oh-it’s-not-like-I’m-racist
neighbor and Jerry Adler’s geriatric slowly
slipping into dementia, never drift into caricature or wear out their welcome.
As for the cast, Hong Chau has
already established herself as both a felon-level scene stealer and a reliable supporting player, and the single mom she gives you here is a sustained portrait of wariness and
weariness. (She can make a fidgety drag on a cigarette feel like an aria.) But she has a great feel for understatement, and the movie’s affectionate, slow-and-low
rhythm suits her.You feel like you’re watching this woman
thaw in real time. Jaye follows her lead by putting Cody’s neuroses and
sensitivity front and center yet never treating them like defining tics. Every so often, he gives you a
peek at what this square-peg boy is feeling. It’s one of the least precocious turns from an child actor
And then there is Dennehy. When the venerable performer passed away last month at the age of 81, he
left behind one of the most distinguished careers in American theater, a legacy as a gentleman and a
hellraiser, a strong claim to being the modern interpreter of Eugene O’Neill’s work, and an insanely
varied resumé (name another actor who garnered awards recognition for playing both Willy
Loman and John Wayne Gacy). We knew him as John
Rambo’s pursuer in First Blood, the voice of Django in
Ratatouille, the “understanding boss” Sheriff Cobb in
Silverado, Chris Farley’s dad in Tommy Boy,
and a million other roles. What we didn’t know was that he had one last great turn in him
before he’d be gone, one that would remind you of what an imposing presence and, paradoxically, a
gentle giant he could be onscreen. He’ll make a seven-course meal out a line like “Po-TA-to
salad, boys!” It’s the long silences, however, that resonate. There’s no lion-in-winter
grandness, no raging against the dying of the light. Del is an old man, who’s grown unexpectedly fond
of this young man in need of a grandfather figure. Stillness is the move here. Eventually, we arrive at
It’s near the end of Driveways, and
there’s no need to spoil what directly precedes it nor the exact contents of Del’s
anecdote. It’s not fancy. It involves hitchhiking. And the sense of regret, happiness, sorrow, a rich past
remembered and the wish that time was not destined to run out that Dennehy gives this story is
something to behold.
When it ends with a
perfect, miniature gesture of compassion, you feel as if you’ve just witnessed a minor-key miracle. You
also feel the loss. There may be tears (on your end). And for a movie about isolation and the risk of
reaching out, it’s a generous example of how nourishing a sense of connection really is.
* * *
Cody’s summer begins with a road trip. Accompanying his mother Kathy, he
travels to the house where his late aunt used to live. While Kathy is busy cleaning out the place, the
almost nine-year-old has to pass the time on his own in the unfamiliar neighbourhood.