'Who's Driving Doug': Film Review

Screengrab/Katz Agency
Stock tale boosted by strong performances.
2/26/2016

RJ Mitte, who played Bryan Cranston's son in 'Breaking Bad,' stars as a wheelchair-bound boy who joins a couple of friends on a Las Vegas spree.

A boy in a wheelchair manages to get some pals to fulfill one of his fantasies and drive him to Las Vegas. Does this sound familiar? If we haven’t seen this exact tale, we’ve certainly seen many variations on the theme. So Who’s Driving Doug, one of the movies having its world premiere in Santa Barbara, won’t win any awards for originality. For that matter, it won’t win many awards of any kind. But it benefits from fine performances by a trio of young actors, and it has affecting and even unpredictable moments along with a few too many clichés. Box office prospects seem limited, but the cast will draw nice reviews.

The film’s writer, Michael Carnick, is disabled, but he reported at the festival that the story was not specifically autobiographical. Doug (Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte) is a college student with muscular dystrophy. His mother (Daphne Zuniga) keeps him on a pretty tight leash, but when his regular driver quits and Doug hires a reckless new chauffeur, he sees a chance to break out of his routines. Scott (Ray William Johnson) is a slacker with his own agenda for wanting to drive to Las Vegas, but he also seems to have some compassion for Doug’s restricted life, and he envisions a journey of liberation for both of them. Doug’s friend Stephanie (Paloma Kwiatkowski) agrees to come along on the trip, hoping to hold the reckless Scott in check.

The trip involves predictable forays into sex, drugs, and gambling, but there are also a few less expected plot twists concerning the deeper reasons for Scott’s desire to make it to Vegas. The script balances humor and pathos with some effectiveness and without too many mawkish excesses. The direction by David Michael Conley does not display much visual flair. Yet Conley works skillfully with the three young actors. Although Mitte played a wheelchair-bound character on Breaking Bad, his character here is shrewder and more abrasive. The actor subverts any stereotyping. Kwiatkowski is convincingly attractive to Doug as well as to the audience. But Johnson makes the strongest impression of all. He can be alternately surly and sympathetic, maddening and generous; this is a beautifully nuanced performance.

Unfortunately, Zuniga offers a caricatured portrayal of the uptight, uncomprehending mom, but this may be a flaw in the writing rather than the acting. And there are too many melodramatic outbursts toward the film’s conclusion. Yet the touching lead performances help to bring these imperfect characters to life.

Cast: RJ Mitte, Paloma Kwiatkowski, Ray William Johnson, Daphne Zuniga, Shanti Lowry.

Director: David Michael Conley.

Screenwriter: Michael Carnick.

Producers: David Katz, Nicola Carbonetta.

Executive producers: Daniel Carnick, Michael Carnick.

Director of photography: Tom Clancey.

Production designer: Alexandra Regazzoni.

Costume designer: Junlyn Delas Alas.

Editor: Bob Mori.

Music: Chad Rehmann, Death Cab for Cutie.

No rating, 99 minutes.

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