Director Andrew Ahn's debut feature, 'Spa Night', was a delicate story about a gay teenage Los Angeleno living in Koreatown and looking around for role models in the men who cruise the bathhouse he works at. Working with the same deliberate, character-oriented approach that proved so rewarding with his last outing, the heartfelt 'Driveways' follows a small boy whose father is absent from his life and an elderly man who has estranged himself from his remaining family. Both are looking for simple friendship. One finds something new to live for, the other discovers a community he can belong to, and they both gain a little confidence. By the end of this film, gentle moviegoer, you definitely will have cried.
We first meet lonely eight-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) as his single mum Kathy (Hong Chau, 'Downsizing', 'American Woman') is driving from their Wisconsin home to a small town in Upstate New York, where she must settle the affairs of her late sister.
What they find is a disaster zone of broken furniture, piles of newspapers, and a dead cat in the bathtub: the sister, April, was a pathological hoarder who shut herself off from the outside world. It will take months to clean the place out and get it ready to be put on the market. The house is uninhabitable, but it's summer, so the mother and son decide to camp out on the front porch.
Observing the process from his own porch next door is Del (the late Brian Dennehy, 'Tag', 'Knight of Cups'), an elderly Korean War veteran and octogenarian widower with a distant relationship to his daughter.
Shockingly, Del is not a racist. Neither are his bingo buddies down at his local VFW. One in particular, Rodger (a small but great turn by Jerry Adler, 'A Most Violent Year'), is beginning to show signs of dementia but is prone to quoting 'Thanatopsis' by William Cullen Bryant rather than spewing dated epithets. Even more surprisingly, nobody thinks these new Asians are invading the neighbourhood. This isn't Clint Eastwood's 'Gran Torino', which came uncomfortably close to excusing an old man's intolerance as a generational quirk. There is a sense that Hanna Bos and Paul Thureen, the writers of 'Driveways', are just regular people who want to tell a story that isn't dripping in cynicism. The end result is a tender, thoughtful study of emotions that reminded me slightly of Victor Nuñez's 'Ulee's Gold' from 1997, a film with which it shares a few thematic concerns.
Cody is a friendly and thoughtful kid, but also introverted and prone to nausea if he becomes overstimulated. There's no one in the town who really connects to him... until he and Del become best buds.
The rest of the neighbours are nice, too - including the snoopy Linda (Christine Ebersole, 'The Wolf Of Wall Street'), her wrestling-obsessed grandchildren, and Miguel and Ana, a pair of friendly kids who introduce Cody to Japanese manga. For at least half the length of the film, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for someone to snarl at these outsiders. Then it dawned on me: for all the broadly drawn characters and well-worn story tropes at work - most prominently a kid teaching an old man to open his heart - there was no ugliness to erode. The greatest gift that Ahn provides filmgoers is his willingness to buck the trends of contemporary filmmaking and, my God, a movie with no villains is such a breath of fresh air in 2020.
Gravitating to human truths and respecting the reality of experience, Ahn achieves a rare, and rarely earned, emotional depth that rewards the moderate demands he makes on contemporary viewers' short attention spans.
Dennehy delivers an ambitious three-dimensional performance as Del - it must have taken courage on Ahn's part to entrust him with this role. But the actor responded splendidly, with work that is reserved yet revealing, withholding but ultimately very moving. Hong Chau is terrific as Kathy, a student nurse, transcriber and solo parent who realises that she never really knew her sister and, now, never will. Chau should be in more things.
These powerful performances are complimented by some simple yet lovely work by cinematographer Ki Jin Kim and an understated piano and strings score by Jay Wadley.
Gravitating seemingly by nature to human truths and respecting the reality of experience rather than the expediencies of Hollywood-style plotting, Ahn achieves a rare - and rarely earned - emotional depth that rewards the moderate demands he makes on contemporary viewers' short attention spans. Some may find the pace somewhat ambling, the style on the prosaic side and the whole atmosphere a bit too down-home, but Ahn's focus on the essentials among life's priorities - family, friendship and human connections - is ennobling and enriching without being sticky or sanctimonious. 'Driveways' explores the guards we all put up between ourselves and others as protection from the things we fear, like getting too close to someone or moving forward with our lives. With one gesture at a key moment, when Cody puts an arm around Del's slumped shoulder, Ahn's quiet film speaks volumes.
Graced by a completely unexpected performance from Brian Dennehy that is by far the best of his career, 'Driveways' is a richly realised drama that doesn't overplay its lessons on life, but contains them, warmly embracing values that another film might have simply ignored.