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 ever.
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 the Monologue.
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.