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Riding in Cars with Boys (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

I haven't read Beverly Donofrio's memoir Riding in Cars with Boys on which the movie of the same name is based, but I think I might, now that I've seen the film. Not because the film is so very compelling that my interest is piqued. On the contrary, because I suspect the production of the movie fell far short of where it might have gone, I am intrigued: Does the author manage to explore the difficult psychological issues about children having children? Does she manage to create sympathy for herself at the same time as she judges her shortcomings? Does she manage to provide a real sense of the times (1965-1985) in which she is raising her child?

The problem with the film adaptation is that the answer to all of these questions is no. Director Penny Marshall creates a perfectly passable film that nonetheless misses the boat. Riding in Cars with Boys gets sidetracked by too many small issues to fully explore the common, but nonetheless poignant, story of Beverly (Drew Barrymore) who, in 1965, gets pregnant by a perfectly nice but rather dull-witted Ray (Steve Zahn), when she is only 15.

Her father, (James Woods) a policeman in her small Connecticut town, is appalled at her life's turn, for Bev is smart and funny and, until the slipup, headed for a good college career, a graduate degree, perhaps a writing life. Instead, she and Ray endure a shotgun wedding and live an increasingly difficult existence of minimum-wage jobs while Ray begins to battle his addictions.

This is the stuff of good memoirs and good fiction, but director Marshall and screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward go astray almost from the first. Rather than accepting the story as whole cloth, they create a frame around it. The story begins as Bev and her grown son Jason (Adam Garcia) travel to find the long-lost Ray to get him to sign a release so that her memoir might be published. This frame is in turn framed by occasional, jarring voice-overs from the grown Jason. Thus, the meat of the story -- the struggle to be mother and teenager and aspiring writer -- is told in flashbacks.

The effect of all these removals from the real story (and don't tell me that her memoir has the same construction -- reality is never an excuse for mediocre art) is to replace the immediacy of the girl's difficulties with a distance that robs the story of most of its poignancy. What we end up with is a kind of era-by-era rehash, each half-decade signified by a new hairstyle, lapel width or pop song. All of those things can be entertaining, but ultimately they become too heavy-handed and the careful balance of the story of an immature girl and her baby son coming to terms in the world becomes almost dull.

Drew Barrymore does an OK job, although she really needs more work with her physicality, relying too heavily on her face to do the acting work (her imitation of being pregnant, for example, is an accidental parody, not a decent observation). The truly compelling acting comes from Steve Zahn who makes you love him even when you hate him, and who manages, with little help from the script, to convey the subtle pain of a man who wants to do his best but simply cannot.

I hate to set the bar too high for any film coming out of Hollywood that at least attempts to deal with real issues as opposed to the ridiculous or violent or gross, but nevertheless I was disappointed by Riding in Cars with Boys. The raw material here was terrific but the adaptation did not do it justice.

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