'Ride': Film Review

A deeply sincere mess of a mother-son dramedy lifted by its leading lady

Helen Hunt directed, wrote, produced and stars in this film about a mother, her son and the passions — writing and surfing — that divide them.

Ride, which Helen Hunt wrote, directed, produced and stars in, begins beautifully. A woman (Hunt) sits against a door in a hallway at night, rising hastily and tiptoeing out of sight when her half-asleep toddler son emerges to go to the bathroom. Once he returns to bed, she resumes her position. Following a dissolve, a young man of about 18 (Brenton Thwaites) comes out from behind the same door — it’s the boy all grown up — and pleads angrily with his mother (still Hunt, now with a bob cut) as she types on her Macbook. He’s writing a short story and wants her feedback. She thinks he should struggle through it alone. They talk over each other, arguing hyperarticulately, but with unmistakable affection. We understand everything we need to know about these two people, what they do and what they mean to one another.

Those early scenes — from the rat-a-tat dialogue to the care with which Hunt arranges her characters within the frame — are indeed so assured that it's a letdown when much of the rest of the movie turns out to be a cut below. 

By turns deft and clumsy, inspired and insipid, Ride is a deeply sincere mess of a comedy about a hard-driving, high-achieving mother, her sweet-natured, smothered son and the passions — writing and surfing — that divide and unite them. If the film wins you over, it’s in large part thanks to Hunt, a force to be reckoned with in front of the camera, if less so behind it.

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Hunt has spent much of her onscreen life being romanced by older men like Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson before slipping mostly off the radar (apart from her Oscar-nominated turn as a sex surrogate in 2012’s The Sessions). You don’t need to be a showbiz expert to guess where she’s been (her age + her gender + Hollywood = …).

But she seems to be taking matters into her own hands. In 2007, Hunt adapted, directed, starred in and co-produced a screen version of Elinor Lipman’s novel Then She Found Me, with Bette Midler as her estranged biological mother and Colin Firth as her love interest. The film, though unwieldy and not particularly artful, was full of feeling and the messiness of life. If Ride is less sophisticated in its insights — Hunt isn’t as strong a writer as Lipman — it similarly revolves around the kind of complicated, ordinary (i.e., not drug-addicted, dying or heroically battling odds) female protagonist that American movies tend to shun. Like Then She Found Me, Hunt’s new film also suggests she has a knack for filling in mainstream comic templates with idiosyncratic, personal shadings.

Hunt plays Jackie, an editor at The New Yorker whose son, Angelo (Thwaites), drops out of college and moves to L.A. — where his father lives — to be one of those writers living on organic coffee and fresh fish tacos, surfing daily and presumably finding time to scribble down a few sentences here and there. Panicked, Jackie books the first flight to the left coast, where she’s met and shuttled around by good-natured limo driver Ramon, played by an amusing David Zayas (though given Adriana Barraza’s recent turn as Jennifer Aniston’s long-suffering housekeeper in Cake, screenwriters would be wise to cool it with the Latin domestic savior/shrewish white woman duos).

Jackie finds Angelo on the beach, and when she engages in some routine SoCal bashing (driving culture, dumb people, all that oppressive sunlight!), he hits her with a harsh confession: “You’re not interesting to me anymore!” he yells. “This [pointing to surfboard] is interesting to me, and you could never do it!” Not one to back down from an implicit challenge, Jackie is soon tumbling around the waves — and then into bed — with surf instructor Ian (Luke Wilson, dependably charming).

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Hunt, despite a few tics (that beatific squint, delivery that can verge on whiny), is a fine comic actress with crack timing and seemingly effortless access to big emotions. Above all, Ride is a reminder that Hollywood needs her; let’s face it — not all the leading ladies courted by studios these days project the braininess needed to convincingly play a New Yorker editor.

Thwaites (The Giver) is more problematic. He’s the rare actor to exude genuine, uncloying earnestness, but that makes him an odd choice for the role (more than the fact that he’s Australian and often sounds like he’s fighting off that irrepressible accent); he has to work hard to convey Angelo’s torment — and once mom is off discovering her inner Kelly Slater, Ride seems to lose interest in him.

Hunt, of course, rose to fame on NBC’s Mad About You, and her sensibility as writer and director feels informed by those sitcom roots. Her dialogue is warm, comforting, on the obvious side, and her gags and setups are elementary screwball (Jackie crouching in the backseat while Ramon tails Angelo; the scene in which she samples, ahem, smokable local produce; her hookup with Ian, with its great, slyly dirty punchline).

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Other than in its opening moments, where Ride springs to life — where it feels most unlike other movies you may have seen — is in the water. Hunt and Wilson (who did most of their own surfing) have a sexy, relaxed opposites-attract chemistry, and, more notably, the movie offers more than a mere montage of Jackie’s surfing mishaps; we actually see her going through the mechanics, learning, trying, failing and flailing. As captured by DP Jas Shelton and “water operator” Sonny Miller, the waves have an urgent, tactile power, and the scenes of Jackie — filmed mainly in close-ups and medium shots — fighting her way through them are the movie’s heart; this is, above all, the story of an arrogant woman humbled by the force and grandeur of the ocean.

Ride ultimately tries to be too much — mother-son drama, rom-com, character study, sports film — and when Hunt trots out an overused melodramatic plot device as backstory to explain why her characters are the way they are, you may roll your eyes  (I did). She also botches a climactic confrontation scene with dialogue so confusingly written that key revelations and accusations are barely comprehensible.

L.A. and New York locations are well captured, the Manhattan sequences characterized by gray tones and cluttered frames while Santa Monica and Venice beaches are shown in their alternately sun-dappled and foggy splendor. Hunt is a native Angeleno, and Ride plays in many ways like a love letter to her hometown — not the Eastside hipster enclaves ubiquitous on big and small screens these days, but the rolling, roiling Pacific that is one of the city’s most precious gifts.

Production companies: Sandbar Pictures
Cast: Helen Hunt, Brenton Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas, Mike White
Writer-director: Helen Hunt
Producers: Elizabeth Friedman, Greg Little, Karen Lauder, Helen Hunt, Moon Blauner
Executive producers: Louise Runge, Samantha Housman, Matthew Carnahan, Robert Beaumont, Kevin Iwashina, Roxanne Fie Anderson, Elizabeth Stillwell, Eric Alini, Bruce Bendell, Michael Paesano
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Tracey Gallacher
Editor: William Yeh
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Music: Julian Wass
Casting: Joanna Colbert, Yesi Ramirez

Rated R, 93 minutes