Okay, Ill admit it. Until now, I have been immune to the acting charms of Drew Barrymore. Actually bemused, disconcerted, and frankly puzzled would be a better way to describe it. Sure, shes cute as a bugs ear and sweet as a honey pie, but a screen presence? No, I just didnt see it. Then I saw RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS and suddenly, it all made sense. I dont want to oversell the movie. Based on Beverly Donofrios autobiography, its an underwritten bit of fluff, effervescent as a cream soda bubbling along on Barrymores considerable charisma. Its aided and abetted by terrific supporting performances, of which James Woods, as her straight-laced cop father, is top of the list.
Barrymore is an actress who doesnt just wear her heart on her sleeve, she wraps herself in it the way movie sirens used to wrap themselves in sable and thats the key to the success here. Her character, Beverly, is a sarcastic, hard-bitten single mother struggling to save herself and her kid from poverty. Shes not sure she likes her kid, and shes very sure she doesnt like what life has handed her, but with Barrymore in the role, the caustic personality is softened into one thats determined, and her staying with a loser husband isnt so much stupidity as cockeyed compassion. The ambivalence about motherhood (and who can blame her, knocked-up and then married at 15), isnt so much cold-hearted, selfish longing for a lost youth, as it is heart-wrenching regret at falling short of what she thinks her kid needs. For every moment when shes making a muck of it, theres the tender one where she really connects with her kid and with us. Like when hubby, Ray, is in the other room going cold turkey from a heroin addiction, Beverly plays her sons favorite song at top volume, singing and dancing to it to drown out the screams and the retching. Another actress would have us calling child welfare, Barrymore makes us root for her.
And as for that script, it starts off promisingly, if unremarkably enough. Theres the teasing look at Beverly all grown up, polished, sophisticated and obviously a success, recalling the events that brought her to this point. Shes about to publish an autobiography, the eponymous RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS, and she and a guy pal are off on a road trip to secure a waiver from one of the people in it. We flash from this sleek, if not entirely centered, New Yorker to her own 15-year-old self on, as she puts it, one of the five or six days of anyones life that change everything. Here is 1965, and shes on her way to a party where the love of her teenybopper life will be. Hes Mr. Wrong, or course, a good-looking, conceited football hero who breaks her heart in front of everybody. On the immediate rebound, and by this I mean 10 minutes, she meets Ray, a drop-out stoner who defends her honor, also in front of everybody, and then goes on to win her, well not heart, but sympathies. As played by Steve Zahn, there is a sweetness to his blockhead persona that makes it work, at least from the view point of a teenager in the throes of raging hormones and heartbreak. He makes Beverly the center of her life, and though its never explored in the script, she constantly tells him that hes the first and only one whos ever done that. On the contrary, we see scenes of Beverly and her father and their special one-to-one relationship that would seem to put the lie to that conclusion.
The story, like Beverlys life, turns from a time of cutesy innocence, to one of aching regrets, nicely summed up when she tells her parents about the delicate condition she and Ray have gotten themselves into. Her mother is as supportive as the morality of the times allows, her fathers devastating reaction is to tell her, You were special, you had everything, and you threw it away. At her shotgun wedding, where no one will talk to her, his toast is to thank his friends for showing up given the circumstances. Ouch. Barrymores huge brown eyes, almost but not quite filled with tears, her face a study in regret as the reality of her new life sinks in, is perfectly devastating. With those eyes, she watches her friends go to the prom, go away to college, while she is stuck in public housing with a kid, a husband who cant hold a job, and a dream that refuses to die of becoming something more than a wasted life. The dream is so painful, though, that at one point she says that she wishes she were stupid, so that she wouldnt know that there can be more. Director Penny Marshalls arch, yet compassionate take on Beverly is the perfect pairing with Barrymores pluck, allowing for nice dollops of humor to leaven the storyline.
The film also succeeds in effectively de-bunking the myth of motherhood as a glamorous Hallmark card lifestyle. This is, as Beverly puts it more than once, a gross business, from the water breaking to a diaper-changing sequence that will send many to their local pharmacy in search of contraceptives. It shows the rewards, sure, but theres also the day-to-day being there for a kid who, in this case is a sweetie, but ont that needs constant care.
The film ends abruptly, leaving a huge gap between Beverly still dreaming of making a better life for herself and Beverly the almost-published author. We learn from dialogue in the present that she managed to land a job at a newspaper, and from the look of her wardrobe, is doing well. Its a cheat not to get to see her land that first career-making job, or at least start, much less finish college. Its the same with her wild-child reputation as a teenager. Shes much tamer than pal Fay, who shares her teenage mother fate with sad, but less dire consequences. And for all the talk of what a self-involved, neglectful mother she was, what we see of Beverly is a caring, if confused, mother struggling with more responsibility that shes ready for and with a support group that includes her own initially reluctant parents. It makes for a peculiar resolution that doesnt jibe with the film itself, but seems tacked on from another flick. But if you can put that aside, there is Barrymore, an irresistible Kewpie doll showing some real acting chops.