Riding in Cars With Boys

As anyone who has made the journey from teenager to adult will testify, the trip is filled with many unexpected speed bumps and detours. For 15-year-old Beverly D’Onofrio (Drew Barrymore), “Riding in Cars with Boys” leads to more than a good time.


It leads Beverly to a lifetime commitment she isn’t prepared to deal with. While other teenage girls are worrying about graduating high school and what to wear to the prom, Beverly finds herself pregnant and married to the poster boy for irresponsible fathers.

Based on the book by the real D’Onofrio, “Riding In Cars With Boys” is another example of how Hollywood can take something thoughtful and squeeze the life out of it. What remains is a familiar tale that lacks its own personality, which is pretty ironic when you consider that all of this is based on real life.

There’s nothing remotely real in Morgan Upton Ward’s screenplay, a patchwork of melodramatic moments so obvious they’re guaranteed to register the appropriate response.

Fortunately, “Riding In Cars With Boys” is also another example of how actors can rise above the material. There isn’t anything in the film that we haven’t seen before, yet once we set our eyes on Barrymore’s Beverly, we find it hard to look away. There’s a sweetheart of a story buried under the formulaic screenplay, and Barrymore seems to be able to read between the lines.

She effectively conveys the hope and heartache of a teenager who is forced to trade in her dreams for diapers. Barrymore plays Beverly from age 15 to 35, but it’s the teenage years the actress seems to identify most with. Like Beverly, Barrymore didn’t get to enjoy her teenage years. She was forced to grow up and accept responsibility long before she was ready to handle it.

When Beverly and her best friend Fay Forrester (Brittany Murphy) attend a party, Beverly has her sights set on a hunky football player. Instead, she winds up with 18-year-old high school dropout Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). Their burgeoning relationship immediately raises red flags with Beverly’s parents, father Leo (James Woods), the local policeman, mother Theresa (Lorraine Bracco), and her friends, who know that Ray is from the wrong side of any track.

Beverly isn’t a good girl, but she’s really not that bad either. She just makes bad decisions. When Beverly ends up pregnant, she and Ray get married, forcing her to put dreams of college and being a writer on the back burner. It doesn’t take long before Beverly sees her life go up in smoke.

Ray starts abusing drugs and alcohol. They live in a part of town the local cops know by heart. When son Jason is born, Ray wants to be a good father but can never rise to the occasion. That puts the burden of raising Jason on Beverly, who makes ends meet with a little help from her friends and family.

Director Penny Marshall, whose best films have been about people overcoming their station in life (“Big,” “Awakenings,” “A League of their Own”), understands the melodramatic nature of the screenplay and almost always steers the actors away from it.

Marshall is like one of those valiant bus drivers who do everything within their power to keep the bus from going over the edge and crashing. Except for a few noticeable dents, Marshall does an admirable job.

Barrymore helps us embrace Beverly, a girl who doesn’t understand that she creates her own misery. Beverly blames everyone else, especially her son, for her lot in life. Barrymore exposes the character’s inner conflict with conviction. When Beverly finally understands that she is the only one in charge of her life, Barrymore makes the revelation a cause for celebration.

There is a moment when Beverly confides to Fay that she’s not sure she still loves Ray. Much to her chagrin, Fay convinces Beverly that despite Ray’s problems, she still loves him. As written, Ray is a one-note character. Steve Zahn, currently on display in “Joyride,” takes Ray off the written page and turns him into a complex character.

Ray is an addict and a loser, but he’s also a man who wants to be a decent father. Desire and duty are two separate things, and once Ray gets loaded, he knows his desire to become a better person will never materialize. There’s a lot of anger and disappointment in Zahn’s performance, a moody portrait of a lost soul.

Beverly’s support group is well represented by Brittany Murphy and Sara Gilbert as her best friends. Murphy, whose haunting performance in “Don’t Say a Word” stole the show, is funny and animated as one of Beverly’s few safe harbors. Lorraine Bracco is engaging as Beverly’s mother, a woman who is happy to see her daughter get a dose of her own medicine.

James Woods is excellent as Beverly’s beleaguered father, a policeman desperately trying to keep his home and work life separate. Beverly doesn’t make it easy. The relationship between Woods and Barrymore is so solid that when he’s forced to arrest Beverly for drying marijuana in her oven, we understand where he’s coming from. Woods walks the thin blue line between parent and policeman with great skill.

“Riding in Cars with Boys” takes place in Connecticut from 1965-1996, and director Marshall and her crew do an excellent job of recreating the various time frames. The soundtrack is laced with memorable songs from each era, while make-up and attitude help Barrymore age from fifteen to thirty-six.

It took ten years for “Riding in Cars with Boys” to make it to the screen. I wonder how much the script changed over the years. Here’s a film that proves with the right actors and director, you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. With more thought, “Riding in Cars With Boys” could have been a complete ensemble.

BOY TROUBLE Barrymore cruises through bumpy road trip

RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS

Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Lorraine Bracco, James Woods, Adam Garcia. Directed by Penny Marshall. Rated PG-13. 121 Minutes

LARSEN RATING: $4.00



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