Driveways Bids Farewell to Brian Dennehy, Giant with a Gentle Heart

Movies Reviews Brian Dennehy
Driveways Bids Farewell to Brian Dennehy, Giant with a Gentle Heart

Loneliness looks different for the lonely depending on their circumstances, and Andrew Ahn’s sophomore feature, Driveways, captures that spectrum through character. For single mom Kathy (Hong Chau), loneliness means sitting amongst the clutter of her dead sister’s house, dwarfed by junk crammed into every corner and piled to the ceiling. For widower Del (Brian Dennehy), loneliness is literal: He lives alone in the house he shared with his wife for decades before her death, their only daughter having relocated to Seattle years prior. For Kathy’s son Cody (Lucas Jaye), loneliness is a weird blessing: Social anxiety makes him hurl; he’s happier reading or playing video games.

Still, Cody wants to play with other kids, or at least he wants to want to, and Kathy, being a concerned mom, knows that even pleasant self-imposed isolation has adverse effects on children. Fortunately for both of them, Del is eager for company, though, as a man of a certain disposition, he’s not exactly the type to appear eager. Regardless, while Kathy cleans out her sister’s place, Del and Cody slowly bond, though their chummy and charming friendship has an expiration date: Kathy and Cody are out of towners staying in the unnamed New York hamlet where Del dwells only for as long as it takes to get the house settled and up for sale. As their time is short, so too is Driveways, a brisk, breezy 80 minutes where conflict is minimal and compassion prevails.

Ahn is working off of a screenplay from Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who wrote their story seemingly around the notion that real life isn’t all that theatrical and most of what comprises the drama of our daily existence is pretty mundane. Death in the family sits at the top of the list, followed by low-key bullying from neighborhood idiot boys, low-key racist microaggressions from their nattering grandmother and bureaucratic roadblocks to rescuing family property from municipal purgatory. Driveways sees the daily indignities of American life as drama enough without leaning on artifice. In an alternate universe, the film would hinge on a blow-up between Del and Cody, or Cody and Kathy, or Kathy and Del, and the denouement would resolve that conflict with a big sentimental beat to warm the heart and send the pancreas into shock.

Instead, Driveways is a simple picture about simple acts of human kindness, a much needed tonic at a moment where innocuous advisories about public safety are taken by wingnuts as proclamations of tyranny. A small but vocal American minority is out in the streets giving the finger to their fellow man, sacrificing all decorum and empathy for the sake of their precious personal freedom. Ahn shot Driveways several years ago, and he premiered the film a hundred years ago at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019, so neither he nor Bos nor Thureen mean to make any comment on what gets airplay on the daily news, but American antipathy is a real thing and has been since well before COVID-19 gave morons permission to storm government buildings and spit in the face of common decency. Driveways is the accidental salve the rest of us need for our current era of callous stupidity.

More relevant, perhaps, is the way Driveways examines what it is to be alone. People, the movie demonstrates, need each other. Cody could be happy as a clam doing his own thing at all times, but he lights up taking lessons from Del in operating a riding lawnmower. Del spent his life working at the expense of a relationship with his daughter, and his quick bond with Cody gives him back a little bit of what he gave up as a father. Kathy’s reacquaintance with her dead sibling reminds her of how little she knew her, and she pauses to think about who she was, how they fell out of touch, what it might’ve looked like if they’d remained in each other’s lives. The movie is layered with thoughts on being lonely, and is also a palliative for both its characters’ and its viewers’ collective loneliness.

Driveways is a precious gem of a film haunted somewhat by Dennehy’s recent passing. Del’s the kind character Dennehy thrives at playing, a man whose burly exterior belies a gentle heart, so it’s maybe unsurprising that this performance, being among his last, centers on that casual humanitarian ease. Del doesn’t need anyone to convince him that Cody needs a male mentor. He picks up the role naturally, right up to his final and painful advice to the boy: “People say things, but it doesn’t matter, you understand? It doesn’t matter. You’re a good kid. Fuck ‘em.” Cody is his chance to make up for mistakes he made with his daughter; Del is Cody’s chance at having a father figure in his life who isn’t constitutionally absent. The work Denney does with Jaye is simple, instructive, but thoroughly moving, a snapshot of male emotional thaw in slow motion.

Chau, tasked with acting against a spirit as well as alongside the living, performs a thaw of her own on screen, shedding Kathy’s layers of resentment toward her sister with every object catalogued and put on the curb for resale. Together, she, Jaye and Dennehy paint a warm triptych of people reconciling their grief through fellowship. All we have, as our ongoing doomsday scenario demonstrates, is each other. Driveways, quietly and unassumingly, puts forward that old chestnut as beautiful truth.

Director: Andrew Ahn
Writers: Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen
Starring: Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy, Lucas Jaye, Christine Ebersole, Jeter Rivera, Sophia DiStefano, Robyn Payne, Jerry Adler
Release Date: May 7, 2020

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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