Reviews SIFF

Little Things–and Brian Dennehy–Mean a Lot in Driveways

Driveways (2019|United States|83 minutes|Andrew Ahn)

Character actor Brian Dennehy, who passed away last month at the age of 81, was a durable presence in films, TV, and on the theater stage for five decades. Barrel-chested, with square-jawed features nestled somewhere between those of a drill sergeant and a benevolent bulldog, he could always be counted on to elevate the stock military and cop roles that were usually his bread and butter. 

Dennehy always felt like an affable bear of a man, so he excelled most when he channeled the sweetness and vulnerability that peered through his imposing exterior. Like any busy character actor, he left at least four other projects in various stages of completion with his passing. But for now Driveways, screening virtually at SIFF, more than serves as a perfect swan song to one of the screen’s best and most underrated Old Reliables. It helps that the movie surrounding him is a genuine, unforced, quietly elegant little jewel. 

Director Andrew Ahn’s first feature film since his much-loved 2016 indie Spa Night begins with single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) picking up the pieces in the wake of her older sister April’s death. Kathy takes on the daunting task of getting her late hoarder sibling’s house in order for sale, while Kathy’s nine-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) helps. During his downtime, Cody meets April’s next door neighbor Del (Dennehy), a Korean War vet who starts out aloof but is quickly thawed out by Cody’s good nature and guileless curiosity. 

Yes, on paper (and to an extent, in execution) Driveways treads familiar ground. Fortunately, it does so with subtlety and significant artistry. Ahn keeps the action at a life-as-usual leisurely pace that works wonders, and he lets small, relatable events guide the movie’s gently-forward momentum. He’s definitely aided by a restrained, finely-wrought screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen.

Bos and Thureen originally wrote Driveways with no specific ethnicity in mind, so Ahn’s added some subtle but effective subtext to the script by casting Chau and Jaye. There’s next to no actual reference to ethnicity, but there’s an added layer of significance and empathy in Kathy’s initially guarded demeanor, done no favors by the racist ‘I’m not racist’ nattering of fellow neighbor Linda (Christine Ebersole). It’s also clear that Ahn’s found a decidedly kindred spirit in the introspective, sensitive, smart Cody.

Driveways is a lovely movie to look at thanks to Ki Jin Kim’s sun-kissed Norman Rockwell cinematography, but Ahn’s touch really allows Driveways to live and breathe as a character piece. Chau lends shading and depth to Kathy, and Jaye conveys Cody’s awkwardness and intelligence with soulful, never cloying fidelity. Their interplay is so natural it’s hard to believe they’re not mother and son in real life. 

The rest of the cast registers strongly, too. Ebersole (a former SNL regular and Broadway fixture) serves up an uncomfortable and funny comic turn. Another familiar character face, Jerry Adler, gets some great comic moments (and a wonderful poetic interlude) as Del’s fellow Korean War vet and bingo buddy. But true to form, Dennehy walks away with the movie. 

Like most of Driveways, the character of Del gradually grows in warmth and depth through little, often wordless moments as the friendship between him and Cody grows. In that context, this weathered rock of a man’s big monologue—a rumination on life’s twists, turns, joys, and regrets—resonates with the kind of authority that can only come from a lifetime of experience. The emotional catharsis feels well-earned, more than a little autobiographical for Dennehy, and—thanks to his quiet strength and gravitas—powerfully, palpably moving. ☆☆☆☆

Driveways is available for streaming through an arrangement between Filmrise, Row House Online, and SIFF, and can be rented here.