Driveways: A Film of Beauty

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 5, 2020

I am not a professional cultural critic but I do love movies, music and literature, and I experience a lot of it each year. I am rarely moved to dedicate a post to one particular piece, until now, having finished watching the movie Driveways for the third time this year. I could have easily done a Best of 2020 type column which is popular as each year winds down, but I want to dedicate this only to the one movie that thoroughly moved me this year and made me see the world and the people in it differently. It’s not a movie, it’s a piece of well crafted, heart felt art. It’s a thing of beauty to behold.

Given the year we’ve all lived through in 2020 with the dark and grim Corona virus raging as I type this, taking 250,000 Americans alone this year and 1,500,000 globally. Due to health restrictions around the virus, new movie releases have obviously slowed down but there have been several good ones including The Way Back, Greyhound, Palm Springs, The Banker, The Trial of The Chicago 7, and Thom Zimny’s incredible documentary Letter To You which focuses on Bruce Springsteen recording his latest album of the same name(another post coming soon on that).

Driveways is directed by Andrew Ahn, written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. It stars Lucas Jaye as 9 year old Cody, Hong Chau as his mother Kathy, and Brian Dennehy in his last screen role before passing earlier this year as neighbor Del, a retired Korean War Vet. Jerry Adler, who played Hesh in The Sopranos, plays Del’s friend Rodger who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s or an unnamed memory issue. While Driveways is timeless in it’s themes, it’s the perfect movie for our times as it focuses on loneliness: the loneliness each and every one of us feel and experience on a daily basis regardless of class, age, ethnicity, geography, religion or marital status. Everyone lives in their own house or apartment, in their own worlds, scared, anxious, lonely with minimal human interaction other than brief trips for essentials or the electronic blue glow of zoom and facetime calls with distant friends and family.

The story focuses on Kathy and her son Cody who make the drive from Michigan to an unnamed location but probably upper New York or Pennsylvania based on some comments throughout the movie. Kathy’s sister lived alone and passed away, and Kathy is left to take care of the business that remains after one passes. The car ride is pretty quiet as Kathy worries about all she has on her plate being a working, divorced single mother and Cody focuses on his electronic tablet that fills his hours. After arriving at the house, Kathy quickly finds out that her sister was a hoarder, leaving behind a house jam packed with furniture and a piano but mostly just junk and a dead decomposing cat. The sister Kathy hardly knew anymore surrounded herself with worldly possessions to make her feel safe amid her loneliness.

Del is the next door neighbor, a lonely widower whose only daughter is a judge who lives in Seattle, Washington. Del slowly develops a friendship with Cody and Kathy through small acts of mutual kindness such as Kathy driving Del to his weekly bingo game when a friend doesn’t show up, Del taking care of Cody after a small incident with neighborhood kids, and Del providing Kathy with electricity so she can properly clean the house out. Cody celebrates his 9th birthday at a local roller rink where he doesn’t know anyone but the only person he cares about coming is Del. Once Del realizes the party is a bust, he takes Kathy and Del to his weekly bingo game where they all make new friends, enjoy the game and for once feel connected to those around them in their common humanity.

The bonds of friendship play out in one scene after another, just as in real life. Del and Cody sharing a bowl of popcorn on the front porch, watching Wheel of Fortune in his living room, walking together as they take Del’s wife’s books to the library to donate, and sitting together reading at the library.

Loneliness comes in various forms: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Kathy’s sister lived alone surrounded by worldly possessions but living in fear. Kathy is divorced with no companion in sight. Del lives alone with no kids or grandkids and few friends he sees only once a week at the VFW. Del’s friend Rodger lives alone in his head with a grab bag of memories coming and going as his cognitive abilities allow. Adler has two magnificent scenes. One in which Rodger and Del slowly stroll the local grocery store aisles. Rodger says he needs to go to the bathroom but then becomes confused and drifts out the parking lot where he stands alone in confusion. Rodger is startled and off balance as Del approaches. Rodger is confused on where or when he is and what he’s doing there but laughs it off. In the second, while the group of friends play bingo, Rodger tells his friends he’s had an idea rattling around in his brain, a poem one of his teachers wanted them to memorize in school. The performance from Adler and the recitation cuts to the marrow of the movie and sentiment.

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join   

The innumerable caravan, which moves   

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   

His chamber in the silent halls of death,   

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,   

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

There are several moments in the movie that could have easily gone in a more feel good, false, Hollywoodesque manner, but the director, writers, and actors stuck to what makes the movie great: it’s realism and authenticity. Towards the end of the movie, Kathy and Cody discuss possibly not selling the house and moving there permanently. Cody rushes over to to tell Del the good news that they can be real neighbors and friends. Del then painfully reveals that his daughter wants him to sell the house and move closer to her and live in a retirement facility. Cody gets upset and runs up the street. Beautifully filmed, Del walks to the top of the hill to console Cody with hugs and a kiss on the top of the head. The two friends, at opposite ends of their time in life, walk back down the hill shoulder to shoulder. In lesser hands, Kathy would have asked Del to move in with them or to just stay so Del and Cody could spend the last years of his life among friends. But just as would happen in real life, Del moves from the home he lived in for decades, the life he built with his wife and family and friends, and leaves it all behind.

Last scene: For me, the movie can be boiled down to its essence in the last 5 minutes when Dennehy and Jaye give wonderful performances as two friends trying to find the right words to say goodbye. With echoes of John Ford’s The Searchers, the scene begins with the camera inside the house shooting out towards the front porch steps where Del and Cody sit apart, backs to the camera. Just like John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards, Cody and Del are on the outside looking in. They are outsiders in their ages, mentalities, spirits and place in life. It’s a heart wrenching moment between friends with the older one expressing life’s good times, regrets, and advice. Del says his daughter being a lesbian was hard for her in this town and knows Cody will have trouble because of his ethnicity, and Del gives him his last words of wisdom: screw ’em, you’re a good kid. On Cody’s part, he’s incredibly smart and fragile, he listens and then realizes Del is in pain and scoots over and gives Del a much needed hug. A touching moment of the power of the human heart.

The movie score is minimalist piano and violin, but a perfect match for the story and acting taking place. The acting is very subtle, nuanced and real. Lucas Jye is exceptional and Hong Chau is the embodiment of a strong, determined female who does not suffer fools gladly but is also a caring mother and devoted friend. Chau has one scene that moved me to tears when, after holding it all together for so long, a realtor comes to the house for a walk through and is repulsed by the smell and sight of the house conditions. Chau’s character apologizes and let’s out some emotion and tears but in a very controlled manner belying her steel will. This scene alone should be used in every acting class going forward. Brian Dennehy turns in one of his finest performances, a skilled craftsman right up until the very end of his life and career.

We live surrounded by material possessions and are constantly “connected” through technology, but never before have we felt this lonely, scared, and anxious. We all live alone to varying degrees, but through the kindness of strangers through the beating of the human heart, through compassion and caring, we make it through this life, these days, together, side by side.

The movie is moving. It’s real. It’s authentic. It’s sad. It’s all life can be in its darkest and brightest days. It’s soul reaffirming. It’s beautiful.

If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it if you can. it’s well worth the time and invaluable as a work of art. Driveways is available on Showtime and Prime.

The end credits roll along with a beautiful song I was unfamiliar with, Growing Up by Run River North

“There’s a fight to be won
For the love you find at home.
Work to be done
Before you rest your weary bones.

I’m finding peace don’t come
To everyone I know,
So I will love in this life
Until I finally have to go.

Said I will love in this life
Until I finally have to go.

Well I know I have lived
Just a wrinkle of my life,
And I hear so many times
It’ll be over if I blink twice.

Please forgive if I don’t walk
Off that plank stuck in your eye.
I’ve got my life to love
And I’m here to take what’s mine.

I’ve got my life to love
And I’m here to take what’s mine.

Growing up child
Is just a matter of time,
For giving all you’ve got,
So won’t you dance under the sun.

Growing old
Feels like you’re giving up your soul.
I’d rather give it freely
To the ones that I call home.”

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