Hollywood has a problem with women. The lack of strong female leads is well documented, less so the issues with the leads that do make it to the screen. After all, criticising what gets to the screen feels counter-intuitive. Beverly D’Onofrio, the flawed lead in Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), manages to find a middle ground: she’s just likeable enough to solicit sympathy rather than alienation, real enough to be relatable. In short, she’s not a ‘Hollywood-ised’ idea of what a woman should be.
Based on Beverly D’Onofrio‘s autobiography, the film’s heroine (played by Drew Barrymore) finds herself pregnant at 15, kicked out of home and married to the local dropout Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). Determined to live out her childhood dreams and make a better life, Bev tries to continue her studies and win a college scholarship. She’s smart. But she’s just not smart enough to realise that she blames everyone else – her father, her drug-addicted husband and most of all, her young son – for all her problems.
Bev isn’t a particularly admirable character but she’s real and complex. Her inability to recognise her own shortcomings is a very human trait, so to her transition from naïve bobby soxer to trailer park mom, which is told sentimentally but without too much schmaltz. Most importantly, she doesn’t fit her gender ‘role’. She’s a woman with ambitions, ones that didn’t include a white gown and a hanger-on husband. She’s a far-from-perfect parent, who puts herself first, makes it clear that her son’s birth didn’t complete her or her life. Of course, it’s these universally recognisable failings, surprisingly absent in so many movies, that make her character so believable. By failing to oversimplify life, Marshall shaped a film that exists much closer to ‘real life’ – so often confusing, disordered… complicated.
Problems with parents extend across the generations. Bev’s father gives up on her, she too gives up on her son. But while her father cares about what is right, how the family are perceived within the community, Bev focuses on what’s right for her. In truth, it’s love that’s absent. It culminates in a scene when Jason tells his grandfather Bev is drying weed inside the house. She’s doing it to raise funds for their new life in California, and is furious with Jason for ruining her chances once again.
Conformity – and what happens when you choose to shirk it – are the themes of Bev’s life. Her only true allay is her best friend Fay Forrester (Brittany Murphy) who announces, at Bev’s wedding, that she is pregnant too. The two girls, ostracised by their families and friends for their refusal to act as society wishes, form an even stronger bond and seek solace in each other’s failings. Their solidarity and friendship is a shared backbone. Despite the number of men in Bev’s life (her husband, her father, her son) she makes her own decisions, and Fay (and occasionally, her own mother) are the first port of call for advice or reassurance. Yet the female solidarity sub-plot is never fully developed. We feel Bev’s pain when Fay moves to a different city, but it’s impossible to identify with the spun-out storyline that sees Jason and Fay’s daughter Amelia fall in love.
In Bev’s head, she lives true to her heart. In reality, that means living for herself and her dreams, despite the negative implications that it has on her son. But what is a mother’s role? Is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothering really defined by the minutes you unselfishly give to your child? In the film’s closing scenes, where Bev and a grown-up Jason track Ray down, it’s obvious that all her cleverness and ambition didn’t make her a wise mother. In fact, it’s Jason that fulfils the parenting role, forced to sacrifice his own dreams and ambitions to ensure her happiness and wellbeing. He gives everything she couldn’t – or wouldn’t.
In Riding in Cars with Boys, events that usually mark a conclusion (births and weddings for example) are actually the starting point. Bev’s refusal to accept what marriage and motherhood ‘traditionally’ means is depressingly remarkable. Yet to laud the film as a success simply because it deals with life events in a more nuanced and realistic way makes light of its shortcomings.
It’s impossible to truly engage with Bev as this doesn’t really feel like her film. She’s the central character but Jason narrates her story. Whilst the ending might tie everything up neatly, it’s not a truly satisfying conclusion for Bev – not aided by the fact that the young Drew Barrymore struggles to convey the nuances of the ‘older’ mother. Most of the movie avoids sentimentality, simplification and cliché (the expected transformation never happens) in favour of truth… the final few minutes undo this spectacularly, trading realism for the warm, fuzzy glow of happiness. Perhaps audiences like to believe in happy endings. But this just might’ve been a stronger film if Bev had kept her bold, uncompromising stance up to the very end.
This post is part of my Female Filmaker series and the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon hosted by Crystal over at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to check out all the posts for a full overview of Barrymore history!