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Driveways is a gentle masterpiece

The quiet drama about neighborly ties — which includes one of Brian Dennehy’s last performances — is exactly what I needed to see this week.

Brian Dennehy and Lucas Jaye in Driveways.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I got to the end of Driveways and immediately rewound (is that still what we call it?) so I could watch the last five minutes again. In those moments, Korean War veteran Del (played by the great actor Brian Dennehy, who died in April) sits on a porch with his young neighbor Cody (Lucas Jaye) and tells him about events that shaped his life and what he wishes he’d known years ago. It’s a moment of such aching poignancy that I was transfixed. I have no idea how much Dennehy identified with his character, but the scene struck me like a blessing, or a benediction, from a man who had seen a great deal of the world and now had bid it farewell.

For those five minutes alone, Driveways counts, for me, among 2020’s great films. But the hour and 15 minutes or so that precedes it is just as moving. Directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, Driveways is surprising at every turn. It’s a modest and gentle story about a boy who feels out of place, and the weak ties he forms that gradually become strong ones.

Those sorts of stories aren’t always easy to tell. Cody is the kind of kid who can be hard for both adults and other kids to understand. He is well-behaved and loving, friendly and thoughtful. But he gets overstimulated easily. He vomits when he’s excited or scared. He is frightened by things that other boys his age find fascinating, like play-fighting and fireworks.

Driveways intimately understands the loneliness of being Cody, and doesn’t overburden the story by heaping contrived drama on top. When he’s introduced, Cody is in the passenger seat of the station wagon his mother, Kathy (a terrific Hong Chau), is driving across the country. Their destination is the old suburban house that Kathy’s sister occupied until her recent passing. When the pair arrive, next-door neighbor Del — sporting his Korean War vet hat — peers at them skeptically from his porch.

Kathy’s sister was a hoarder, something neither Kathy nor the neighbors knew, and it’s going to take a lot more work than Kathy anticipated to clear out the house. Meanwhile, Cody tries to fill his days, eventually befriending Del as well as some other children on the street.

Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye in Driveways.

Given that Kathy and Cody are of Asian descent, this is the point at which I expected the film to trend toward something like Gran Torino, with shocking, dramatic storytelling about hate, anger, and changing minds. But while Driveways doesn’t back away from the smiling racism that lurks everywhere around Kathy and Cody, it doesn’t focus on it, either. The shifts that come from Del and Cody’s friendship are more muted, almost imperceptible. Del finds something new to live for. Cody discovers a new community. They both gain a little confidence.

Obliquely, and so softly that you’ll miss them if you’re not paying attention, Driveways explores the guards we all put up between ourselves and others to protect ourselves from the things we fear. Loneliness. Mortality. New experiences. Getting too close to someone. Moving on with our lives. The film has the feel of a coming-of-age story stretched over one dreamy summer — you can hear the crickets and feel the sunshine — but it’s not entirely clear who’s coming of what age. Instead, without forcing its characters into huge thunderclaps of realization, Driveways lets them bask in the cool rain of neighborly companionship and small acts of kindness.

It’s a film that understands one person’s sensitivity and innocence as a strength that can complement someone else’s experience and thrive. Dramas in which “nothing” happens rarely succeed as well as this one does.

Driveways beckons us toward a future of closer ties

The only reason I could revisit the final moments of Driveways while watching the film in advance of its release is that these months of pandemic-induced social distancing have short-circuited my usual critical routine: See the movie once, in a theater or at a festival before its release. Scribble notes. Write a review. Now I am watching films like Driveways on my TV or laptop, trying to recreate that experience of unbroken attention that a theater affords.

It’s hard to be engulfed by someone else’s story when you’re sitting at your desk at home, staring at the same screen where you check your email and read the news on Twitter and toast friends’ birthdays over Zoom, with everyone arranged in little boxes like ice cubes in a tray. Human connections are stretched thin and brittle. When we go out, masks covering the lower halves of our faces, it’s difficult to know whether someone is smiling or eyeing you suspiciously. I heard a story about a woman who sat on her stoop, drinking a margarita, while a neighbor did the same on her stoop, far more than 6 feet away. Someone called the cops on them.

So, like just about all pop culture right now, Driveways feels a bit like fantasy. Suddenly I am nostalgic for things I formerly kind of hated, like surprise visits from nosy neighbors or loud roller-skating rinks. All at once, the idea of hanging out with people who are virtual strangers seems bathed by default in a golden glow in my memory, as if those encounters and places are sealed away in an era that has disappeared and will never come back.

Brian Dennehy and Lucas Jaye in Driveways.

But it will. And the quiet gentleness of Driveways had the funny effect of reminding me that those of us who’ve been holed up at home will eventually start to venture out, by choice or necessity. And for a while, at least, our closest social interactions and ties may be rooted much nearer to home than they once were. Unlikely friendships between people like Cody and Del may stop being unlikely at all. The people whose driveways abut ours, whose front steps are within shouting distance, will be our world. The simple pleasure of playing bingo in a small group or trading manga with friends may be what some 11-year-olds remember most about this time, once we can do those things again with some degree of safety. Small gatherings. Unassuming moments.

Meanwhile, time is passing; we’re in a holding pattern, but we’re living life, too. Someday we will look back at now, and I think what we’ll remember most is how we treated one another in the face of our weaknesses and fears. For me, a film like Driveways is like a firefly caught in a jar, a small light of something like hope that we can learn from one another and love one another, despite whatever storm is raging in the outside world. That we can meet each other on our porches — or at a healthy distance — and keep the ties between us strong, even now.

Driveways is available to digitally rent or purchase on services including iTunes, Amazon, and other digital platforms and on-demand providers.

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