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by Jay Seaver

"Doing the work and giving us one of Brian Dennehy's last great parts."
5 stars

The easy way to make "Driveways" - or, at least, an easier way - would be to have the Korean War vet next door be angry, mean, and/or racist, but that's not what the filmmakers do, instead keeping an even keel and as such making it quite enjoyable to focus on the little details of the simple story.

That starts with single mother Kathy (Hong Chau) and her almost-nine-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) on the road to upstate New York, getting ready to clean out the house Kathy's late sister Alice lived in so that they can put it on the market. It's a daunting task - Kathy hadn't seen Alice in long enough to realize that she'd become such a hoarder that it would be impossible to even open the front door - and Cody's social anxiety has him buried in his tablet most of the time. The neighbors range from nosy Linda (Christine Ebersole) to octogenarian widower Del (Brian Dennehy), although the latter turns out to be fairly friendly, and the fact that he's not pushy about it puts Cody at ease much more than Linda's grandchildren.

Director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen don't spend very much time explaining the circumstances Kathy and Cody come from at the start, and it's not because they're saving it for some revelatory "this explains everything" moment later, but they drop little bits of information that let a viewer form a picture. There's arguably only really one "person X is like this because of reason Y" in the movie, and that's just plain useful, in some ways; it can be ridiculously easy to judge people both real and fictional, and the specific decisions that put Kathy and Cody in this seemingly itinerant spot, or left Del and some of his friends from the VFW relatively alone, could easily distract the audience from who they are now.

Instead, the audience watches Kathy methodically unpack a too-crowded house and gets some glimpses of Del doing the same, and it's interesting how this sort of thing becomes a theme. Alice died relatively young, and while there are half-hearted suggestions that this mass of things may have been a comfort to her, it's difficult not to see them as a burden, something which Kathy must dig through to eventually find something which reminds her of a happier time in her childhood, while the more emotionally sensitive Cody is at once more detached, having barely known Alice, but at some points more cognizant of what needs to be treated with a little more care and respect. Del's parallel journey is similar, but more reluctant; he's facing the inevitability of his life, and that of his late wife, being cleared out in a similar way and unconsciously trying to save the good bits - donating Vera's books to a library, or telling stories to Cody - as he sees his best friend decay. Meanwhile, off to the side, a couple kids mention that they found a big box of manga in someone's basement, and that bit of found/left-behind object may just wind up as important as anything else.

It's not a thing the characters talk about directly, which means one sometimes has to watch Hong Chau and Lucas Jaye kind of closely to see how they build Kathy and Cody. Jaye is a refreshingly average kid at the center of the film even though it's often tempting to dial up the issues written into his character up higher than he and Ahn do, so Cody's introversion feels defensive rather than pathological, and like something he's working through. Similarly, Hong Chau often gives off a sense that Kathy is still somewhere between doing what she thinks a good parent is supposed to do and having it come naturally. Brian Dennehy, meanwhile, gets to be a bit more expansive, and it's a delightfully warm part for someone who has spent much of his career playing tough guys, even if it perhaps uses those previous roles on occasion to imply that it took some work to become this better man.

That sort of work doesn't look like much at all, but it doesn't have to; "Driveways" doesn't stretch a moment beyond what it can support and is content to let a viewer relax and think about how it demonstrates kindness and awareness of these various sorts of burdens. It may not be dramatic in the conventional way, but there's a lot to be said for just quietly doing the work rather than trying to force a moment of revelation and change.

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originally posted: 05/19/20 06:13:13
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Directed by
  Andrew Ahn

Written by
  Hannah Bos
  Paul Thureen

  Hong Chau
  Lucas Jaye
  Brian Dennehy
  Christine Ebersole

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