Let Us Be Your +1 To ‘The Prom’

by Glen Weldon, Aisha Harris, Mark Blankenship and Margaret H. Willison


Based on a sudsy, splashy 2018 Broadway musical, The Prom has been adapted for Netflix with big stars like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Keegan Michael-Key and James Corden. But will the theater-people in-jokes land in your living room the way they did on Broadway?

Show Notes:

The audio was produced by Will Jarvis and edited by Jessica Reedy.

‘Mulan’: A Beloved Disney Classic Reimagined As Martial Arts Epic

by Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Mallory Yu, and Kathy Tu

The biggest movie so far to be bumped from theaters to home viewing during the pandemic is Disney’s Mulan. The live-action reimagining of the 1998 animated musical doesn’t have songs or a cartoon dragon. But the story still finds young Mulan disguising herself as a man so she can fight in her father’s place.

Show Notes:

The audio was produced and edited by Mike Katzif and Jessica Reedy.

‘Tenet’ Opens Internationally. Will Be Shown In Select U.S. Cities Next Month

by Mandalit Del Barco

FILE – In this May 12, 2018, file photo, director Christopher Nolan poses during a photo call at the 71st international film festival in Cannes, southern France. Warner Bros. will release Nolan’s “Tenet” internationally first on Aug. 26, with a U.S. release in select cities to follow over Labor Day weekend. Warner Bros. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP, File)

It’s always been about timing with Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated action thriller stars John David Washington as a secret agent who inverts time to try to save the world from an impending World War III.

His character apparently doesn’t so much time travel as bend time. The actor has told reporters he had to run and do stunts backwards for his scenes. “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” he said to ET Canada, about the film’s complicated story line. “Just enjoy being in a theater and looking at an event. It’s such wonder and spectacle and location and scale, beautiful scenery … And then on the second and third viewing, try to deconstruct it and break it down.”

To open Tenet in theaters, Warner Brothers also had to bend time. The studio originally slated it to open in July, but repeatedly rescheduled the film’s release while the coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas around the globe. Now that theaters have reopened, Tenet has already premiered in Australia, and opens Wednesday in Canada, South Korea, and much of Europe. Next week, it opens in select American cities, though not Los Angeles or New York. Following that will be Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico and Japan.

“They wanted enough available theaters to make it worth their while, that over the long term they can make their money back,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore. “This was not an inexpensive movie.” He says the $200 million plus movie is not the first big film to open overseas before it does domestically: The Avengers and the Fast and Furious franchise also opened globally first. But Dergarabedian says Tenet is seen as the big American studio film that might lure people back to theaters around the world.

“This is an industry that’s been blind-sided by the pandemic,” Dergarabedian says. “A lot of people are saying it’s over, people are going to just stream movies now at home. That’s not true. People are going back to the movie theater, and they want to feel safe and secure doing that. And Tenet is the big ticket, the movie that everyone has been waiting for.”

Christopher Nolan, who shot Tenet on 70 millimeter and IMAX, has long championed the cinematic experience. He made a direct pitch to China, where the film is set to open on Sept. 4. “I like nothing more than escaping to another world through the power of movies,” he said in a video for Chinese audience.”And Tenet is our attempt to make as big a film as possible, with as immersive action as possible for the big screen.”As for U.S. audiences, there are sneak previews Aug. 30. It opens wider Sept. 3. So if you want to go back to the movies, set your timers.

‘Boys State’ Helps Teens Learn How Politics Work — Perhaps A Little Too Well

by Justin Chang

Since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week-long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program’s famous alums.

The film, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, focuses on the Texas Boys State event that took place in June 2018. We see the roughly 1,200 participants arriving in Austin, where they are randomly divided into two political parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry no agenda: It’s up to both parties to hammer out a platform, choose their leaders and then run against each other in a week-long election campaign.

McBaine and Moss throw us into this mock government exercise without much preamble or explanation of the rules of the game. Like politics itself, the action can be a little confusing; unlike politics, it’s never boring, mainly because the movie wisely focuses on a select few participants. Either the filmmakers were extremely lucky in their choice of subjects, or they shot so much footage that they were able to isolate the most compelling personalities. In any event, the four young men we spend the most time with all end up playing key roles in the experiment’s nerve-wracking outcome.

The most ambitious of the bunch of is Ben, the Federalists’ party chair, who’s willing to do anything to win votes, including smearing the Nationalists on social media. Ben is politically conservative — he has a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it — and he despises what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability. Ben speaks from some personal perspective: He lost both his legs to meningitis when he was 3.

The chair of the Nationalists’ party hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A progressive Black teenager originally from Chicago, René knows he stands out in this mostly white, conservative Texas field. He also stands out on merit: He has a seasoned politician’s command of rhetoric and can deftly out-argue any opponent. But he’s also capable of calling for party unity, as he does in an early speech.

If René has the sharpest mind and tongue in Boys State, its heart and soul belong to Steven, a fellow Nationalist Party member. Steven becomes an underdog in the race for Governor, the highest elected office. Like René, Steven stands out: He’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and he counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes. His humility on the campaign trail and his stirring honesty in front of a microphone prove irresistible to the crowd. Again and again, he invites his fellow party members to tell him what issues are most important to them, so that he can be a better, truer representative for their concerns.

We see these young men debating a lot of issues, especially gun control. There’s a lot of talk about protecting the Second Amendment, but there are also counterarguments from students, like Steven, who have clearly been shaken by the sheer number of school shootings. Another much-discussed issue is abortion, which leads to one of the film’s most revealing moments. A Nationalist gubernatorial candidate named Robert, who’s running on a strict pro-life platform, admits on camera that he’s secretly pro-choice. “Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win,” he says. “That’s politics.”

Indeed it is. And while the filmmakers are working from a mostly neutral fly-on-the-wall perspective, their attitude toward the Boys State program feels ambivalent at best. Deliberately or not, the experiment seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America’s political system itself: personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It’s undeniably inspiring to see so many young men with bright, engaged minds, and the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments. But it’s also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible — as a game to be won by any means necessary.

‘Black Is King’: A Beyoncé Film With A Disney Twist

by Stephen Thompson, Kiana Fitzgerald and Soraya Nadia McDonald

Beyoncé in “Mood 4 Eva” from the visual album BLACK IS KING on Disney+

Last summer, Beyoncé Knowles released an album called The Lion King: The Gift. It was based around Disney’s remake of The Lion King — a film that included voice acting from Beyoncé herself, among many others. Last Friday on Disney+, Beyoncé released a movie-length video that’s meant to serve as a companion to the album. It’s called Black Is King, it’s visually grand and sumptuous, and it’s got a huge cast — you’ll see Lupita Nyong’o, Pharrell Williams, Kelly Rowland, and many looks at Beyoncé’s children, her mother, and her husband Jay-Z. Black Is King and The Lion King: The Gift both highlight many guest performers — including African stars such as Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Busiswa, Mr. Eazi, and more. 

The audio was produced and edited by Mike Katzif and Jessica Reedy.

Terrific New Thrillers ‘Amulet’ And ‘Relic’ Explore Terrors Lurking Within The Home

by Justin Chang

Given how much time some of us are spending at home these days, there might be something a little perverse about watching a movie that takes place in a haunted house. That’s especially true of two terrific thrillers, Amulet and Relic, in which the characters’ living spaces are infected with dark spirits and become inescapable prisons.

The wilder and crazier of the two is Amulet, a strikingly assured writing and directing debut from the actress Romola Garai, known for her work in English period pieces like Atonement and the BBC series EmmaAmulet, an intensely creepy supernatural freakout heavily influenced by the Italian horror master Dario Argento, is a rather less well-behaved affair. It stars the charismatic Romanian actor Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a man from an unspecified European country who’s now living in London. Tomaz suffers from PTSD, and he spends his days doing construction jobs and his nights sleeping in a refugee shelter.

One day, a kind nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), offers to help Tomaz and leads him to the nearby home of a woman named Magda. The house is practically a ruin: The walls are decrepit, the rooms are filthy, and Tomaz can hear loud wailing — the sound of Magda’s mother — coming from upstairs. 

Magda’s mother lives on the top floor of the house and isn’t long for this world. Magda is tasked with the sole responsibility of her care, but it’s a tremendous strain — especially as her mother doesn’t like Magda to socialize.

Imelda Staunton’s delightfully mischievous performance as Sister Claire is an immediate sign that all is not as it seems. But that’s true of Tomaz, too. Throughout the film, Garai keeps cutting back to troubling scenes from Tomaz’s past, specifically his time as a soldier in some distant conflict. She undermines our instinct to sympathize with him and assume that he’s the hero of this story.

Tomaz agrees to stay and help Magda with odd jobs around the house, in exchange for room and board. But some jobs turn out to be odder than others. It’s not long before Tomaz makes a ghastly discovery while cleaning out the bathroom, in perhaps the creepiest backed-up-toilet scene since Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation

But Amulet is more than the sum of its visual frights. Garai sets you up to expect one kind of movie, but she’s made something else entirely: a nightmarish story of male violence that becomes an immensely satisfying story of female retribution. Amulet is hardly the first revenge thriller to come along in recent years, but it left me admiring its fantastical moral logic: Given the reality of the world we live in, it might take an act of supernatural will to bring about justice.

Relic isn’t quite as ferocious as Amulet, but its brooding restraint may be even more effective. The Japanese Australian director Natalie Erika James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, has crafted a slow-burning story about three generations of women brought together under the same roof. 

Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote play Kay and Sam, a mother and daughter traveling from Melbourne to the countryside home of Edna, Kay’s mother. Edna, who’s dealing with the onset of dementia, went mysteriously missing a few days ago. A police search is under way, and Kay and Sam are desperate to find her and make sure she’s OK. 

The condition of the house suggests that she isn’t: The place is a mess and the walls are covered with a strange, dark mold. They find little notes that Edna has scribbled to herself, which suggest she’s being haunted by something far worse than memory loss. And things don’t get any better when Edna, played by Robyn Nevin, suddenly reappears, alive but far from well.

There are no shocking twists or contrivances in store in Relic, and not a lot of gore, either. James excels at mining dread and tension from ordinary conversation, and she uses thriller conventions to get at something simple but shattering: the horror of watching a parent slowly deteriorate. The occasional flickers of tenderness that Edna shows Kay and Sam quickly give way to deep, implacable anger, some but not all of it rooted in past arguments and resentments. More often it stems from the fact that Edna no longer recognizes her daughter and granddaughter.

In the movie’s scariest and most ingenious sequence, Kay and Sam find themselves trapped in an ever-shifting maze of corridors and hidden passageways, as the house itself seems to mirror Edna’s increasingly unstable grip on reality. 

But as impressed as I was by the craftiness of Relic, I wasn’t prepared for how moving it would be. It’s not an easy thing for a director to pull off terror and grief, to let these two emotional registers coexist rather than fighting each other. But that’s exactly what James does here. She’s made a disturbing and ultimately devastating movie about what it means to love someone unconditionally, even when they’ve lost the power to love you back.

Delroy Lindo: I Think Of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ As ‘A Love Story’

by Scott Simon

Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s new film, follows five friends who shed blood, sweat, and tears together in the 1st Infantry Division during the Vietnam War — and who return, after 50 years, to bring home the body of a fallen friend, and perhaps a treasure buried with him. 

But is the treasure true riches, just reparations, or a curse?

Actor Delroy Lindo stars in Da 5 Bloods. He says it was a tough film to make. “When we wrapped in Saigon. I was aware of being quite fatigued emotionally, psychologically, somewhat physically, but I was not necessarily aware of that while we were filming.”

Interview Highlights

On Lindo’s character, Paul, wearing a MAGA hat

I didn’t want to do it, but I said to Spike, why can’t we make Paul, you know, an archconservative, an extreme conservative without going there, without my being a Trumpite? And he thought about it for a while. He called me back three days later and said he really needed Paul to be a Trumpite. And at that point, I read the script an additional two times, and I came to realize it’s just one component of this man.

On Paul and what he’s been carrying around for 50 years

I will say to you that that is part of the reason that I cast the vote that I cast, that Paul cast the votes that he cast. And during those 50 years, I have struggled. Now, let me just be clear what I’m saying, I am speaking as Paul. I struggle with a litany of betrayals and losses. One of the most significant betrayals is by the United States of America. When I came home from Vietnam after having volunteered — I was not drafted. I volunteered for three tours in Vietnam out of a love and sense of duty — coming back and being reviled and rejected constitutes for Paul a huge betrayal.

Then there is the loss of my wife. Then there is the loss of my son — and by loss of my son, what I mean is our relationship, as you see in the film, is fractious. There’s love there, but it’s very, very fractious. And here comes this individual in 2015 who says, I can make it better. And Paul needs a win. I need to believe what this man is saying, and that is what causes Paul to become that MAGA hat-wearing person.

On working with Spike Lee

Every time that I have worked with Spike, he is prepared to the max. He is detail-oriented so that when he shows up to begin work, and even in the rehearsal processes prior to filming, there is a clarity of vision, a clarity of purpose, which I find jibes with my own clarity of purpose on each of the projects that we’ve worked on. Coming to this project, there was that same attention to detail, that same passion, that same irrepressibility in service of the work. That was like oxygen for me. Beyond a breath of fresh air, it was like oxygen, in terms of once again being in the trenches with Spike and making this work.

On the timeliness of the film

It always seemed like a profoundly important film from the standpoint of presenting this story through the lens of the African American soldier’s experience, which does not happen for the most part. But you are right. The events of the last two, three weeks have made it even more acutely, timelier than it ever could have otherwise been.

On his hopes for the film’s audiences

This may seem like a very elementary thing to say, but in my mind it is not. I hope that they have an enhanced regard for these men in their humanity, because when I think about how we are presented in this film, and the dearth of stories through the lens of the black experience, what this film is doing in my mind is serving as a historical corrective.

So what I hope there is a an enhanced recognition of, as a result of seeing this film, is these men, their contributions, their courage and their love of America, and their love of country in context of the presentation of their humanity. Because a lack of recognition of our humanity is exactly the reason, one of the main reasons why the country is experiencing the turmoil that it is experiencing right now. So I hope in this film there’s a recognition of: These men are human beings, courageous human beings, loving human beings. Certainly, problematical human beings with faults and foibles and pettinesses, but who also love deeply. Because I think of this film as a love story.

This story was edited for radio by Sophia Boyd and D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Elisabeth Moss Shines As Writer Shirley Jackson In This Smart, Surprising Film

By Justin Chang

Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her long-term houseguest Rose (Odessa Young) form an unusual bond in Shirley. The film mixes fact and fiction to explore the life of the American writer best known for her short story “The Lottery.”

I first saw Shirley months ago, back in January. It’s strange to be revisiting it now. Like a lot of very good movies, it doesn’t speak to this extraordinarily fraught moment, and it doesn’t offer a mindless escape from it, either. What it does offer is a smart, fascinating glimpse into an artist’s mind, and I hope you’ll seek it out now or in the future.

The timing of the movie’s release (it begins streaming on virtual cinema platforms June 5) chimes with a welcome resurgence of interest in Shirley Jackson decades after her death in 1965. You might have seen Netflix’s popular adaptation of Jackson’s horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House, and 2019 brought us a movie, based on her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, that deserved more attention than it received.

Now comes Shirley, a new film directed by Josephine Decker, which stars an unsurprisingly superb Elisabeth Moss as Jackson herself. But this isn’t a biopic in any straightforward sense; it’s more of a biographical-literary fantasia that freely mixes fact and fiction.

Sarah Gubbins’ script, loosely based on a 2010 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, means to suggest the origins of Jackson’s gothic sensibility, as well as her special insight into the minds of lost young women who feel isolated from mainstream society. Jackson felt some of that isolation herself, due to her unhappy childhood, difficult marriage and frequent bouts of anxiety and depression.

We first meet Shirley in the early ’50s, living in a small Vermont town with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. He’s played with great bon vivant gusto by Michael Stuhlbarg.

Stanley, a professor at Bennington College, has invited his new teaching assistant, Fred, and his wife, Rose, to stay with them until they can find a place of their own. But Fred and Rose, played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young, soon become long-term houseguests, as Stanley pushes Rose into the role of Shirley’s caretaker and companion, so that he can pursue his work and his extramarital affairs in peace. Looking after Shirley is no easy task: She hasn’t left the house in ages, and her writing has ground to a halt. As Stanley knows all too well, even getting her out of bed for a meal is a chore.

The academic setting and the couple-on-couple dynamic are meant to remind you of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and for a while the movie plays like a furiously entertaining comedy of marital discord. But as vicious as Shirley and Stanley can get — and despite Stanley’s infidelity — their marriage is weirdly functional at its core: Stanley genuinely respects his wife’s intellect and wants her to thrive.

And Shirley’s writing does eventually get back on track. We see her writing her second novel, Hangsaman, which is inspired by the 1946 disappearance of a Bennington student, Paula Jean Welden. This detail is rooted in real life, but the movie adds its own wrinkle: Shirley comes to see Rose as a kind of muse, a stand-in for that missing student.

If all these layers of reality and artifice sound a little confusing, that’s very much by design. Decker previously directed Madeline’s Madeline, a dizzyingly meta experiment about an aspiring young actress and her opportunistic theater director. Shirley looks far more conventional by comparison, but Decker’s jagged aesthetics are still in evidence: intense closeups, a swerving handheld camera and a score that pulses with menace. And she is grappling with a lot of the same themes and conundrums she did in Madeline’s Madeline, from the blurring of art and life to the troubling idea that mental illness can be a source of creative energy.

Moss, who has been made to look uncannily similar to Jackson, has always excelled at playing characters with their nerve endings exposed. After the tense dramatic exertions of her recent movies, Her Smell and The Invisible Man, she gets to relax a little as Shirley, teasing out the odd flashes of warmth and tenderness beneath the author’s prickly front. She also has a strong screen partner in Young as Rose, who is awed by Shirley’s brilliance and inspired to pursue her own life of the mind.

Although the movie suggests an erotic dimension to the relationship between these two women, what binds Shirley and Rose more than anything is a shared sense of injustice. They both have flagrantly unfaithful husbands — it doesn’t take long for Fred to start cheating on Rose — and they both chafe against the supportive housewife role that so many women were expected to play during that era.

Despite Jackson’s enormous popularity as a writer, the horror elements in her work meant that she had to endure a lot of genre snobbery as well as gender snobbery. It wasn’t until well after her death that more critics came to appreciate her body of work. Like a lot of great genre writers, Jackson consistently used thriller conventions to illuminate the phantasms of the mind and turn her own demons into art. Shirley is a worthy testament to her legacy.

It’s Not Just A Phase: ‘How To Build A Girl’ Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

By Ailsa Chang

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan in How To Build A Girl, adapted from Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel.
IFC Films

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. “There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment,” she says, whether it’s about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. “Those phases matter,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to last, but they do matter. … I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults.”

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna “hasn’t found her people yet,” says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: “I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14,” she says. “It would have changed my whole understanding of myself.”

Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. … I might … be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. … I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She’s genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she’s also fed up. … She’s busting out of her skin. She’s busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she’s so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic … but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen sadness or tragedy in my life. … The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn’t found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. … I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. … I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn’t mean that you’re excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. … You have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don’t have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran’s guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me … ‘This is loosely based on my life, but it’s not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. … But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.’ … I just couldn’t have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I’m not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room … I was shaky and not locked-in. … And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at … a women’s only swimming pond. … And we didn’t talk about the movie. We didn’t talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. … I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. … And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. … It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me … I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. … I just think there’s so many aspects of Johanna’s story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

Brian Dennehy’s ‘Driveways’ Performance Is Gruff, Graceful — And A Goodbye

By Justin Chang

When 8-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) temporarily moves into the house next door to Del (Brian Dennehy), the two strike up an unlikely, intergenerational friendship. Dennehy died April 15 at the age of 81.
Courtesy of FilmRise

When I first saw the lovely independent film Driveways last fall, I didn’t know that I was watching one of Brian Dennehy‘s final performances. I remember thinking he was wonderful in the movie, which in itself was no surprise. I also remember wishing that this great American actor, so acclaimed for his work on stage and television, had been given more of his due in movies. In Driveways, Dennehy gives the kind of graceful, deeply lived-in performance that reminds you why he was so often taken for granted: When you never hit a false note, you run the risk of making it look easy.

Dennehy plays a suburban widower named Del who befriends a woman and her 8-year-old son when they temporarily move into the house next door. Kathy, played by Hong Chau, and her son, Cody, played by Lucas Jaye, have driven some distance so they can clean out the house of Kathy’s late sister, April, and put it on the market. Easier said than done: April was quite the packrat, and the house is a mess, full of boxes and clutter, and with a dead cat lying in the bathtub.

We get to know the characters gradually. Kathy is studying to be a nurse, and we can sense immediately that she’s a great mom: She’s always looking out for Cody, nagging him to eat more and encouraging him to come out of his shell. Cody is a shy, sensitive kid who likes to keep to himself.

But then Cody meets Del, a Korean War vet who lives next door and spends a lot of his time sitting on his front porch. Things don’t get off to a promising start. In one scene, Cody gets water splashed on his T-shirt, and Kathy, mistakenly thinking Del was responsible, goes over to confront him.

Del might seem gruff at first, but it doesn’t take long for him and Kathy and Cody to warm up to each other. Kathy helps Del out by driving him to an appointment, and Del returns the favor by looking after Cody one afternoon following a babysitter mishap. Del and Cody bond naturally and with minimal conversation; sometimes Cody just likes hanging out on Del’s porch, reading a book while Del looks at his newspaper. “He’s good company,” Del says.

All this might suggest a sappy, paint-by-numbers setup, or maybe the indie dramedy version of Pixar’s Up: Cranky old man bonds with cute kid. But the movie is subtler and more delicate than that. The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, don’t try to engineer big emotional moments or shock us with cathartic revelations. They simply show us three people at different life stages coming together under imperfect circumstances and, somehow, fitting together perfectly.

Chau, a great actress known for her work in the movie Downsizing and the TV series Big Little Lies, beautifully captures Kathy’s lingering guilt at not having spent more time with her sister. Cleaning out the house becomes her way of getting to know a sibling who was, in many ways, a mystery. Jaye is also terrific as a smart, thoughtful kid who doesn’t make new friends easily, but desperately needs the support and validation of others.

The movie was directed by the Korean American filmmaker, Andrew Ahn, who made the moving and perceptive coming-of-age drama Spa Night. It was Ahn’s decision on Driveways to cast Kathy and Cody with Asian American actors, a choice that enriches the film without calling attention to itself. It’s a gentle reminder that cross-cultural relationships happen every day in America, even if our movies don’t always reflect that reality.

Watching Driveways a second time recently, I found it even more emotionally affecting than before. That’s partly because its portrait of neighborly goodwill strikes a resonant chord at the present moment, when many of us are staying home and isolating from others. But mostly it’s because of Dennehy. At one point, Del gets a quietly stirring monologue in which he looks back on his life — his military service, his decades-long marriage, his blessings and failings as a husband and father — and sums it all up with an exquisite mix of joy and regret. Like all great actors, Dennehy left us far too soon, but it’s hard to imagine a more poignant farewell.