It's's safe to assume that Beverly Donofrio was never a candidate for Mother of the Year. In Penny Marshall's adaptation of Donofrio's memoir, Riding in Cars with Boys, Bev (Drew Barrymore) grows up in blue-collar Connecticut, nursing dreams of a writing degree at New York University. (Or, as Barrymore dreamily says it, "N.Y. Yoooooo.") That dream careens down a seemingly inescapable cul-de-sac when she gets pregnant at the tender age of 15. The father, Ray (Steve Zahn), is a good-natured ne'er-do-well who'll eventually screw up her life further with his drug and alcohol problems.
If it's starting to sound like a storyboard for yet another of those triumph-of-the-spirit films, don't break out the Kleenex just yet. This isn't a happy film, and despite Marshall's attempts to frame it that way, it isn't a terribly funny one. As the real Beverly Donofrio is the first to admit, it's the story of a self-centered girl who refuses to accept the deferral of her dreams, even at a cost to her son. For Bev, "M" doesn't stand for "mommy," it stands for "me, me, ME!"
Bev cries when she realizes she's given birth to a boy, not the daughter she was expecting. She ignores young Jason to study for her G.E.D. and nearly allows him to drown in a Jacuzzi while she's doped up and shooting the breeze with her best pal Fay (Brittany Murphy, who matches Barrymore's energy nicely). For birthday presents, she writes up a life plan for her son and announces her plans for a book. Given their tumultuous history, it's astounding that, as adults, this mother and son can share a continent, let alone a long car ride, as they do in the film's opening scene.
The screenplay ' reportedly more than a decade and several rewrites removed from Donofrio's original manuscript ' hopscotches back and forth between three decades. We get '60s Bev as a boy-crazed, bouffant-sporting bad girl and '70s Bev as a beleaguered mother stuck in public housing as she struggles to realize her dreams. Finally, there's '80s Bev in bad makeup and a suddenly pronounced noo-yawhk accent. As the film skips along, it skips over some pretty significant territory. Adult Jason is presented to us as a fairly well-adjusted guy, but we're given almost no evidence that Bev ever did more than attend to her son's basic needs.
At one point Ray pulls a disappearing act, forcing Bev to cart Jason to a scholarship interview and thus lose the opportunity. "For me," says Jason in a voice-over, "it's not how Ray let her down, it's about how my mere presence at the age of 3 crushed all her dreams." That incident alone ought to have been the basis of a decade of psychotherapy.
With her directorial debut, 1988's Big, Marshall established herself as a master of the bittersweet. Here, she's often forced to slather on a thick coat of syrup to offset the vinegary events of Bev's life, and it doesn't always work. Luckily, she's working with talented actors. Barrymore's sunny screen personality has always been at odds with her own troubled history ' that's been part of the appeal of her turns in films like Ever After, and it's part of her appeal here. Zahn's loopy timing and facial expressions carry every scene he's in; ironically, he's the parent who comes off as most caring, and it's his unexpected pearl of wisdom that helps to bring Bev and Jason to a better understanding of each other.
Bev's philosophy boils down to this: Three or four events determine your fate. But her tragedy is her failure to recognize her own culpability in bringing those events about. Riding in Cars with Boys is a courageously unflattering portrayal, one that flies in the face of Hollywood's typical take on scrappy motherhood. As a result, though, it's almost impossible for the audience to connect with Bev, root for her or feel any sense of triumph when she finally convinces Ray to sign the waiver her publishers are demanding before they green-light her book. Call it courage if you want to. If you're a parent, you'll probably also call it sad.