on the Road to Higher Education:
Riding in Cars with Boys
Barrymore heads a talented cast in Riding in Cars with Boys,
based on the life story of Beverly Donofrio as told in her memoir
of the same name, published in 1990. The film, directed by Penny
Marshall, spans 20 years of Donofrio’s life, recording her transformation
from a boy-crazy teenager to a young mother struggling to hold
onto dreams of going to college and becoming a writer.
When 15 year-old Beverly finds herself pregnant, she quickly realizes
that the child’s father, Ray (Steve Zahn), an unemployed high-school
dropout, simply isn’t the man that she was “supposed” to marry.
But to appease her heartbroken parents (James Woods, Lorraine
Bracco) and comply with the social mores of 1960s Wallingford,
Connecticut, she and Ray wed and move into a small house together
before their son Jason is born. Beverly then confronts a painful
series of obstacles that thwart her hopes of attaining a higher
education and creating a good life for herself and her son. The
story is framed by scenes of Donofrio and the now college-age
Jason driving together from New York City, allowing the audience
a glimpse of Beverly’s struggle through the eyes of the child
whose mere existence threatened his mother’s chances for success.
In what is, at its heart, the story of a young woman who refuses
to let go of her dreams despite the odds, the film documents,
in often excruciating detail, each blow that life deals her, not
allowing the audience to experience the joy of the successes that
we know Donofrio ultimately attained. After a humorous opening
scene in which a school-age Beverly explains to her father that
what she really wants for Christmas is not a bicycle but
a bra, the film takes a turn to more serious topics and doesn’t
regain this lightheartedness. From the trauma of teenage romance
to the repercussions of her husband’s increasingly destructive
behavior, Donofrio’s tale plays out more like a tragedy than the
comedy-drama that the trailer promises.
While the film presents a rather bleak view of Donofrio’s life
story, Barrymore and Brittany Murphy, who plays Fay, Donofrio’s
best friend, portray characters who present the complex reality
of teenage motherhood, and Steve Zahn presents an all-too-familiar
portrait of a young father who needs as much “parenting” as his
own son, as he raises one barrier after another between Donofrio
and her dreams.
Beverly Donofrio is, without a doubt, a fascinating and dynamic
character, whose life experiences cannot be contained in a neat,
90-minute package, and Riding represents but one stretch
of road on a much longer journey.
in Cars with Boys has been rated PG-13 for thematic elements,
drug and sexual content.
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