Andrew Ahn’s sophomore film is one of the year’s most understated masterworks, with a beautiful sendoff for Brian Dennehy.
Andrew Ahn’s second feature Driveways boasts the kind of perfectly calibrated performances and thoughtful temperament that might end with the film being damned with faint praise like “modest pleasure.” But it’s exactly that fastidiously restrained directorial judgment – of when to underscore and when to pull back – and the slyly escalating script that elevates it from something slight into a substantial, gut-clenching drama without drawing attention to that gradation.
Beginning in a low-key observational mode, Driveways introduces its two focal points with little sense of ceremony that nonetheless reveals much about the character’s individual circumstances. In a gentle montage, Kathy (Hong Chau) and her soft-spoken son Cody (Lucas Jaye) are shown on the road, in a diner, trying to get in a house, and finally, at a hotel. They don’t say much to each other as Cody’s head is burrowed in a tablet, but Chau’s mildly reassuring smiles, occasional glances, and uncertain demeanor elaborate their relationship.
Subsequently, the camera pivots to another unhurried snapshot with the interior life of Del (Brian Dennehy), an elderly Korean war veteran and widow who’s lived in this factory town for decades of his life. Posed alone at a dim table with a cup of soup and watching the tv with distracted nonchalance, Del isn’t weighed down with guilt as much as hanging in a light fog of his own making. Passing time playing bingo at the VFW hall with his war buddies and sitting on his porch, he keeps to himself despite his avuncular countenance.
These two sets of characters meet quickly, but their relationship isn’t an essential collision that defines everyone’s existence. Rather, their experiences are a necessary piece of punctuation in lives that still have more chapters to come. As encapsulated in the down-to-earth script by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, all of the interactions have a pleasant spontaneity that feels cute in isolation. But over time, they accumulate to build a social, political, and generational understanding of a small town that sees little action but still thrums.
Kathy and Cody at first spend entire days going through April, Kathy’s sister’s house. Not estranged but twelve years older and party to a long grudge, Kathy didn’t know her sister very well other than the fact that she died in the hospital. As expressed in a pithy conversation with Cody, Kathy’s recollections about April are vague, calling her “smart and quiet” and comparing April to her own reputation as the “wild child”.
As a single mother in transit, Chau is a vibrant presence, expanding a series of scattered notes into a character who’s not haunted by regret but who hasn’t come by resolution easily. That’s not to suggest that Ahn will bring that great realization. It’s too focused and grounded to look for something so monumental in either April or Del, for that matter.
Likewise, April’s personality isn’t unveiled with time or through the comments of neighbors. The perceptions of her range from “kept to herself” to “she was so fat” courtesy of the little brats across the street who never saw her leave her home. Instead, it’s condensed to the space of her house, which is littered with mountains of junk and a dead cat that make Kathy’s task much harder. A great, small scene illustrates this pain early on when Kathy goes to speak to someone about selling the house only for the person to come for a walk-through and react in sad horror at the sheer amount of stuff, triggering Kathy to well up in frustration.
Chau is a vibrant presence, expanding a series of scattered notes into a character who’s not haunted by regret but who hasn’t come by resolution easily.
Mortality is an inevitable theme, between Kathy’s emotional purging while cleaning the home and Del’s awareness of his own dwindling years, but it doesn’t ever overtake the sacred, casual air of the film. In between, time is divided between Cody getting to know the other kids in the neighborhoods like the aforementioned cretins or spending time with Del in a way that feels like a totally natural progression.
In fact, none of the scenes between Del and Cody dip into the dreaded treacle that comes with the territory of friendships between elderly neighbors and kids. That’s in part due to Dennehy (a swan song of a performance that matches Harry Dean Stanton’s haloed turn in Lucky in its bittersweetness) who expertly moves between a patient guardian and a wizened but beaten-down old man – but it’s also a credit to the narrative’s disinterest in making him a symbol or an omniscient presence. Even the climactic monologue from Dennehy (an eye sweller if ever there was one) is delivered in a fragmented way that goes right over the head of the other person in the scene.
That’s the nature of Driveways as a whole and its sparing but powerful gestures towards a grander vision. It’s so effortlessly presenting its larger narrative that it only magnifies all the small ways that Driveways deepens its emotional connections and builds up a world that’s not perfect but feels exactly right for the moment.
Driveways is currently available on VOD and on-demand platforms, and in virtual screenings in arthouse theaters across the country.