8 DECEMBER 2001, Page 66


Riding in Cars with Boys (12, selected cinemas)

What's done is done

Mark Steyn

I'm 22,' says Beverly Donofrio, 'and I still haven't accepted that this is my life.' She has a seven-year-old son, and they live in a dump in a crime-infested neighbourhood, and her husband is a drunk and a junkie and a loser, and the likelihood of anything ever getting better is as rare as winning the lottery. In my part of the world, the Beverlys roll round every summer — the 14-year-old who does a bit of babysitting or works a couple of weekend shifts at the general store, and is already thinking about what she wants to do in life.

But school starts up, the year drifts by, and the next time you see her she's pouring your coffee at the lunch counter and seven months pregnant. At some point, all of us have to accept that 'this is my life'. But for some the bounds are set very early: it's over before you know it's begun, and 99 per cent of the possibilities are closed off.

Maybe if they'd been a little spottier, or their breasts hadn't kicked in so early, or mom had been stricter about letting guys bring you home on those days when she worked the evening shift .. . For Beverly Donofrio looking back, Riding in Cars with Boys is where it started. Had it stopped there, all would be well. But riding in cars with boys led to parking in cars with boys and to screwing around in cars with boys. Miss Donofrio is a real person. She grew up in a bluecollar Connecticut town in the Sixties and dreamed of going to New York and becoming a writer. Instead, she got pregnant at 15, and never became a writer until 1990, when she published a successful memoir called Riding in Cars with Boys.

You can see why Drew Barrymore jumped on this role. Bev is an impulsive, imperfect, self-absorbed mess, and as America's Errant Sweetheart — a reformed movie brat with well-publicised personal problems post-ET — Miss Barrymore knows that territory well enough to find the sympathetic centre within. Also, she gets to age from 15 to 36, which means the character's a great showcase. And, though she's certainly a cutie, she looks real enough to project convincingly that prematurely aged look so many of the world's Bevs have by the time they reach 22. In fact, there are moments when you wonder if the film doesn't make Miss Barrymore look too drab and careworn.

We meet Beverly, after a brief prologue, in 1986, riding in a car with her own boy, now a young man. Jason is driving his mom to a meeting with the father he barely remembers. Bev has written an autobiography, but she needs his signature on a release form in order to get it published. Compared to his mother, his father, or the second wife, Jason is the most aware guy in the room. His dad is trying to avoid humiliation, his mom is too preoccupied with her book to give any thought to the impact on her son of meeting this broken sack of human refuse. There is very little emotional connection between child and mother, which in most films would be a problem but here speaks coolly to the truth of the situation: she spent too many years looking at him and seeing a mistake, and he knows that too well. With this scene, the film warns us that this will not be a heartwarming tale of redemption, of a single mom triumphing over the odds; it tells us that, whatever Beverly's estimation of herself, the movie has no illusions about her.

The mistake occurs at a party in 1965, Beverly has a crush on a vain hunk of a football jock and slips him a poem she's written. He immediately reads it aloud to the amusement of his snickering chums. Humiliated, Bev winds up with Ray (Steve Zahn), a hard-knock high-school dropout, who impregnates her, and changes everything. And it can never be undone.

Her father — the town's police chief (James Woods) — arranges the wedding, and Bev and Ray settle down. Ray gets a job installing air-conditioning and tries to be a good father, but he's like a little boy himself, hiding his face when caught out or slumping into sullen silence. Even a life as stripped down as his is too much: his drug habit brings no joy, but only another load to the daily burden. He agrees to babysit Jason so that Beverly can go to an interview for a college scholarship. But come the day, Ray forgets, so Bev has to schlep the kid along and the meeting does not go well. 'For me it's not about how Ray let her down,' says Jason years later. 'It's about how my presence at the age of three crushed all her dreams.' Beverly blames her kid, blames her dad, and at one point blames her kid for reporting her to her dad and getting her arrested.

There are good performances from Barrymore, Zahn and Woods, but an odd uneven tone for as blandly efficient a director as Penny Marshall, Miss Marshall, who's given us Big and Beaches, seems to have been picked for no reason other than that she's simpatico with the period. In the film's prologue, we see the chiefs police cruiser skimming across the snow as daddy and his precocious little girl bellow along to the Everly Brothers. Miss Marshall spends the rest of the film fighting her instinct for sweet nostalgia — for New England Main Streets, for innocent pop songs, for all the things that Beverly Donofrio's experience tells us are no consolation. The movie's cutesy-pie teen-angel feelgood trailer is probably the picture Miss Marshall would have preferred to have made. As it is, the film veers erratically from bleak to singalong mode, from brilliant flashes of great human truth to moments of generic Hollywood mush.