Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:12 - Released 10/19/01

Riding In Cars With Boys tells the autobiographical story of author Beverly D'Onofrio, a girl who wanted to be a writer but was forced to put her life on hold when she became pregnant in 1968 at age 15. Adapted for the screen by executive producer Morgan Upton Ward (from D'Onofrio's book of the same name) and directed by Penny Marshall, the film stars Drew Barrymore and Steve Zahn doing some of their best work to date, but is somewhat marred by Barrymore's apparent inability to keep a straight face. I have complained about this before; it's not that I think she is a poor actress—in fact I find her extremely talented and quite charming—but the fact that she can't get through a scene, no matter how serious the subject matter, without smirking, is distracting and difficult to ignore. This is especially annoying here because this film, a serious story about a woman who had to face many hardships growing up alongside her own child, contains little to laugh about.

The story begins in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1961, where a 10 -year-old Bev (Mika Boorem) is seen riding in the cruiser with her policeman father (James Woods), together singing the Everly Brothers song "Dream." After this tender relationship is established, we segue to the 35-year-old Beverly (Barrymore), estranged from her father and her ex-husband, riding to New York City with her college age son, Jason (Adam Garcia). This is a big day for her. "Life is just 4 or 5 big days that change everything," she says to him. And then we return to the late '60s, on another "big day," when an ill-advised romp in a boy's car results in a major life change. Although she had wanted to go to college and become an author, Beverly must marry and settle down. Ray (Zahn) is not her ideal man, but he is the father of her child.

The intervening years of Beverly's life play out much in the same way as It's A Wonderful Life, with one opportunity after another passing her by, usually because of the needs of her growing boy (played by several different young actors) and/or the delinquency of her well-meaning but irresponsible and eventually drug-addicted husband. She attempts to get her high school equivalency degree, she tries to get into college, she dreams of moving to New York or California, she commiserates with her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy), all the while caring for Jason as best she can and dealing with Ray's failure as a morally responsible human being.

Although this film deals with the depressing minutiae of a life unfulfilled, it does not dwell on Beverly's misery. She is painted as a self-absorbed and emotionally immature young woman who is concurrently raising and being raised by her own child, but there is enough tenderness and true caring on the part of all the characters to win our sympathy. Zahn is subtly charming as the loving loser he portrays, we understand what Bev sees in him even though he does her wrong time and time again. The little boys who play Jason are all honest and believable, especially Logan Arens (age 3) and Cody Arens (age 6), who radiate cute and yet don't push it so far as to be cloying. Along with Barrymore and Zahn, they share some heartbreakingly touching moments. Meanwhile, Barrymore, who apparently re-established communication with her own estranged mother, Ildiko Jaid, as a result of filming this movie, grows into the role, transforming with only minor discomfort from a giggling teen to a jaded, middle-aged woman. She and director Marshall have created something here, a bittersweet comment on a life that didn't go as planned.

But still there's the smirking. Dammit. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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