Riding in Cars with Boys

As a boy-crazy teen mom forced to grow up along with her son, who is twenty when she's thirty-five, Drew Barrymore bites into a role that shouts, "Look, Oscar, I'm acting!" Who better than this wild child, with the emotional scars to prove it, to give screen life to the blunt, ruefully funny odyssey laid out by Beverly Donofrio in her 1990 memoir about a bad girl on the make for an education and maturity? Barrymore, 26, runs with the role, until the script by Morgan Upton Ward slams her into a wall of banality. What a shame.

Director Penny Marshall sets things up nicely, notably the details of blue-collar life in Wallingford, Connecticut, where Beverly (Barrymore) lives with her cop father (James Woods in normal mode: very scary) and her housewife mom (Lorraine Bracco). Though Bev and her best friend, Fay (a scrappy Brittany Murphy), do plenty of time in back seats with boys, sex is less vital to Bev than going to college and becoming a writer. Then she meets Ray (Steve Zahn, miscast but mesmerizing), a sweet loser of a junkie, and gets knocked up, married, divorced and dead-ended. She raises Jason, played by three child actors and, at twenty, by a blandly handsome Adam Garcia.

Things go wrong quickly, starting with the awkward framing device that has Bev and the adult Jason visiting the long-absent Ray. Bev wants the trailer-park bum to sign a release for the book she's written about their lives. These scenes are not in Donofrio's book, a template that the script veers from frequently, to its detriment. The rough edges of Donofrio's life are either ignored or smoothed away, replaced by broad laughs and easy sentiment — a gooey combo that ties up the loose ends that define a real life into a bogusly neat package. The best of what's left is on the fringes. Marshall, pregnant and married herself at eighteen, has an eye for the toll that thwarted passions take on a young girl. It's in these fleeting moments that Barrymore is free to dig deeper and find the sting that comes with truth.

From The Archives Issue 882: November 22, 2001