'Driveways': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Loners connect in a stirring story.

Veteran actor Brian Dennehy stars with Hong Chau ('Downsizing') and newcomer Lucas Jaye in this small-town tale of outsiders coming together.

A lot of talented people have come together to make Driveways, a character drama screening in Berlin that turns out to be a small gem. It should find a distributor willing to expend some effort to bring this film to an appreciative audience.

Those talented filmmakers begin with the screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, primarily known for their theater work. Auteur-oriented critics frequently undervalue the contributions of writers, but Bos and Thureen have a deep understanding of character and an appealing sense of restraint; they never try to inflate or overhype this tale of just a few people interacting in a small town. (The film was shot in Poughkeepsie, New York, where the writers met as students at Vassar.)

The choice of Andrew Ahn as director was also inspired. Ahn made an acclaimed debut with the gay-themed film Spa Night, but this new picture marks a change of pace for him and demonstrates his versatility. It was Ahn (who is Korean-American) who suggested changing the main characters to Asian-American, which gave an extraordinary opportunity to Hong Chau and newcomer Lucas Jaye as her son.

Chau plays Kathy, an aspiring nurse, who brings her young son Cody to help clean out her dead sister’s house in order to put it on the market. They find this to be a more demanding job than they expected, since Kathy’s estranged sister was a major hoarder, and the film finds sly humor in the distasteful task that greets the new arrivals. (A dead cat is just one of the surprises.). They find some support from a taciturn neighbor, Del (superbly played by Brian Dennehy), a widower and Korean War veteran who takes an interest in Cody. 

That’s about all there is to the story, but it is rich in characterizations. Without any heavy-handed social commentary, the film alludes to a number of relevant contemporary issues — the financial hardships facing many people in the American heartland, along with the loneliness and challenges of aging. Del has an older friend (beautifully played by Jerry Adler) who suffers from dementia, though there is one poignant scene where he suddenly remembers a poem and recites it perfectly.

All of the performances in the pic are skillfully modulated. Broadway veteran Christine Ebersole has a tasty supporting role as an intrusive neighbor. Chau, who may be best remembered for her vivid role in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, captures the impatience and toughness of this single mother with few resources; we can see her love for her son as well as her believable impatience with some of his quirks. 

Ahn works instinctively with Jaye so that this child actor never once teeters over into mawkishness. Is Cody gay? That’s a possibility, given his isolation and sensitivity, but the director never underscores that point. We eventually learn that Del has a lesbian daughter whom he may not have treated welcomingly in the past, and perhaps he takes an interest in Cody as a way of trying to make up for mistakes he made while raising his own child. But that is only one possible reading of the film; the writers and director keep the interpretations open in order to allow the audience to participate more fully.

The friendship between a reclusive man and a fatherless child has of course been explored in other movies. This one is a bit reminiscent of Hearts in Atlantis, where Anthony Hopkins played a loner taking an interest in a neighbor’s young son, played by the late Anton Yelchin. But the details and the quality of the acting make this pic unique. Dennehy has had a long career in television, film and theater. He created one of the most memorable interpretations of Willy Loman in an award-winning stage production of Death of a Salesman. But movie audiences have had to settle for seeing him in occasional, small supporting parts in recent films. Driveways rights that omission by giving Dennehy a juicy role that he plays to the hilt without ever overplaying. He has a final monologue, in which he expresses a lifetime of regrets, that is a breathtaking piece of film acting.

The locations are well captured by cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, and the musical score by Jay Wadley is delicate and unobtrusive.  The filmmakers never underline the emotions they want to evoke, and yet by the end, audiences may be moved to tears by this tale of fractured lives that find just the right measure of repair.

Production companies: CinemaWerks, Farcaster Films, Maven Pictures, Studio Mao, Symbolic Exchange
Cast: Brian Dennehy, Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye, Christine Ebersole, Jerry Adler
Director: Andrew Ahn
Screenwriters: Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen
Producers: Joe Pirro, James Schamus, Nicolaas Bertelsen, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
Director of photography: Ki Jin Kim
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Matthew Simonelli
Editor: Katherine McQuerrey
Music: Jay Wadley
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation Kplus)
Sales: ICM

83 minutes