Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Driveways Is as Peaceful As it Is Poignant

Shy youngster Cody (Lucas Jaye) and his mom, Kathy (Hong Chau), have come to clean house. Literally. Kathy's sister has just passed away and has left a home that's packed to the gills with assorted items. Kathy and Cody are gonna have to clean it all out before they can put the house on the market. While tackling this seemingly insurmountable task, Cody runs into next-door neighbor Del (Brian Dennehy). An elderly Korean War veteran, Del may keep to himself but he and Cody eventually strike up a friendship. It's a bond that provides both of them with plenty of amusement as they each navigate where they're going in their lives next.

Driveways is best described as peaceful. It's a film that, much like the words of Chantal Akerman or Richard Linklater, hews closely to a naturalistic flow. Scenes are as quiet as they need to be and there's no real big dramatic plot turns to speak of. It's a subdued style that's handled impressively well by director Andrew Ahn and screenwriters Hannah Bos and Paul Thurteen. This trio is able to grab the attention of the audience just through small acts of kindness and instances of the characters taking tiny steps forward in their lives. Sometimes, you need something big to impress a moviegoer. Other times, like with Driveways, it's the little things that leave an impression.

It's not really rocket science why Driveways and it's restrained storytelling works so well. Bos and Thurteen weave storylines for the three principal characters that resonate as both realistic and compelling.  Kathy, for example, is grappling with how little she actually knew her now deceased sibling. Meanwhile, Del is dealing with constant quiet reminders (including the deteriorating mental state of one of his longtime friends) of his own ever-looming mortality. As for Cody, he's an introverted child who struggles to fit in with other kids. Each of these plotlines gets executed in a similar fashion that uses visuals rather than ham-fisted dialogue to convey what the individual characters are internally dealing with.

Such a method is further reflected in how Andrew Ahn's blocking and staging of individual shots tend to say so much about the lead characters of Driveways. An early wide shot depicting Cody in lurking in the corner of a hotel pool, avoiding the other nearby rowdy kids, immediately conveys his social anxieties. Meanwhile, a recurring visual motif that places off-in-the-distance characters in the center of extreme wide shots nicely suggests how isolated Kathy and Cody feel in their new environment. I especially like how this motif's melancholy undertone gets nicely subverted twice (once during the third act and once during the credits) to indicate Cody becoming closer to residents of this community.

There are all kinds of little touches like that scattered throughout Driveways that leave an impression without the movie ever commenting on them. Another example of this phenomenon comes in how Kathy is allowed to be a human being separate from her responsibilities as a mom. Driveways depicts Kathy as having a nose piercing, going out to a bar to hang with people her own age and not having all the answers...and all of that's OK. None of it is shown as a sign of weakness or anything like that, they're all just facets of who she is. Even in independent cinema, mom characters can get boxed into stereotypes so easily. But Driveways is a quietly unique movie and part of that includes making sure Kathy is her own person rather than a hodgepodge of stereotypes.

The subtly distinctive nature of the proceedings extends to the poignant moments of the movie, which do a great job of being both restrained and emotionally satisfying. I never thought a nine-year-old's adventures in a Bingo Hall could be so genuinely touching but Driveways manages to do just that! Perhaps best of all in Driveway's assorted emotional sequences is that it derives poignancy from just the characters being there for one another rather than tidy solutions that solve everything. Cody never gets a cure-all for his social anxiety. Kathy never gets the kind of closure she would have wanted with her sister. By the end, Del is still overwhelmed by how much of his life has gone by. "Fifty or sixty years has gone by just like that," he remarks to Cody in the final scene of Driveways.

Again, Driveways refuses to offer easy resolutions to such enormous emotional problems. Its story ends on an indicator that further change is in store for these characters and that it'll be tough to navigate that change. This is made clear in a final extended monolog from Del that just guts you right in the heart. Bos and Thurteen imbue this dialogue with frankness about the temporary and fragile nature of existence that resonates as incredibly authentic. The fact that Brian Dennehy delivers it so well in his very last performance adds an extra effective layer of pathos to the entire sequence. This moving conclusion caps off Driveways on a note that recognizes realities hardships. At the same time, Driveways offers up some hope that the human connections we make in our lives can help us endure the hardships.

Driveways is a peaceful film, yes, but as its ending shows, it's also an incredibly thoughtful piece of filmmaking.

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