A tender film, Driveways packs an emotional wallop without ever being melodramatic. It’s the type of movie where we learn about the characters by observing them. Andrew Ahn’s second feature is melancholy but tinged with love and an eye for the human condition that is refreshing.
For example, take how Ahn introduces Brian Dennehey’s Del. An old white man sitting on his porch, his clothes clean and crisp, while he wears a veteran’s hat for the Korean War. He spies Cody (Lucas Jaye), a young Korean boy, drinking from the garden hose next door. Cody spills water on him and runs inside only to be seen by his mother Kathy (Hong Chau).
Kathy and Cody do not live in the town, nor the house, it belonged to Kathy’s recently deceased sister. They are there to clean out the house and get it ready to be sold. A job that becomes harder than first thought when Kathy discovers her sister was a hoarder.
Because Cody is shy and embarrassed about his clumsiness, he inadvertently implies that Del had something to do with his shirt being wet. Kathy storms outside and talks with Del. For a brief moment Ahn has us wondering who Del is and what will happen. Within seconds though it becomes clear, whatever issues Del had in the Korean War he has long since overcome them. Kathy realizes her mistake and what seemed like an explosive moment is instead simply defused.
Soon, another neighbor comes over a middle-aged white woman, Linda (Christina Ebersol), a warm and welcoming neighbor, the opposite of Del’s quiet gruff demeanor. “It ‘d be nice to have young people here. Well, there’s a lot of Mexican families that live on the other side of the alley, and they’ve got a lot of big parties. I mean, I’m not being racist or anything, but they have a lot of babies, and right out of high school, so–”.
I mention this racist moment, but I should make it clear, Driveways, is not centered around racism. Which is to say, while it is not about it, it doesn’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
Cody and Del are the heart of the film. Two shy people who have great wells of emotions but aren’t quite sure how to express them. Yet, while they are the focus, Ahn makes sure to allow for other characters to make connections and allow us little peeks into their lives and struggles.
Consider how Ahn allows us to learn so much from his characters by telling us so little. Moments such as when Kathy’s ex-husband calls to wish Cody a happy birthday. He seems confused that she is not home and wonders why she is at her sister’s house. He briskly tells her to tell Cody a happy birthday from him and hangs up. This brief conversation tells us more than any scene with Kathy confiding to another character about her past. The timber of Chau’s voice and the coldness of the father’s voice is more illuminating than any expository scene could ever be.
While it is packed with drama, it is the sort of everyday drama that grounds us and reminds us of the little things we often take for granted. Ahn is a great observer and his dialogue and visuals reflect that. But the drama unfolds almost in a soothing in a way, a balm to these turbulent times.
His characters talk in a way everyday people talk without pop culture references with a tendency to hide what we really mean between the lines. Kathy asks her real estate agent Charlene (Robyn Payne), a Black woman if she likes living here. She replies with, “I mean–I like selling here.”
Charlene comes over to look at the house and is shocked to see the state of it. “Oh my. This is too much for one person.” Kathy nods, “Yeah, she had a lot of stuff.” Charlene corrects her, “No, for you.” Kathy breaks down in tears while Charlene tries her best to console her.
Chau is a chameleon. She is an actress who whenever she appears, I wonder who this amazing actress is; only to realize it’s Chau. A complete actress she somehow vanishes into her roles making it impossible for us to recognize her from other work, if only because each character is so vividly and distinctly different from the other, that we have no recognizable markers of familiarity.
Ahn is doing more than telling a story, he’s painting a picture, with each brushstroke a deliberate and bold choice. The central story of Driveways exists almost as a set dressing. Kathy is trying to sell her dead sister’s house, Ahn uses it to move the story along but is by no means concerned about it in a way that a plot-driven movie would be.
If all of this wasn’t enough Ahn explores, not just generational differences by looking at how people at different ages are worried about different things. Cody is worried about the here and now. A sensitive boy he has trouble adjusting to the rapidness and the sometimes harshness of life. Kathy seems haunted by the future, she’s worried about Cody and whether or not she is providing the best care she can for him. Not to mention she is struggling with her own loneliness and insecurities.
Then there is Del, who has lost a wife, and whose friends are his buddies at the VFW who play bingo. One of which, Rodger (Jerry Adler) is suffering from memory loss, in a way that haunts Del because he fears he may be edging towards that same phase himself soon. While at a grocery store Del and Rodger banter back and forth, with Del teasing Rodger for wearing a fancy suit to the grocery store.
Rodger excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Soon Del realizes something might be wrong and goes looking for his friend only to find him in the parking lot trying to remember what he was doing. Del smiles and gently reminds his friend where they are and takes him back inside.
It may seem obvious but a film like Driveways only works if you have actors who can handle the small moments and have instincts that reject the big emotional overtures. Young Jaye never stumbles onto a false note. He possesses a naturalism about him that is affecting and makes his Cody all the more fully realized as he resembles an actual child as opposed to an idea of a child that so many other films sometimes fall victim to.
Brian Dennehy is without a doubt one of the finest actors of his generation. The only reason his name is not more known is that he preferred theatre to film. Dennehy died not long ago making Driveways his last film; and it is a worthy testament to his talent.
Though it helps that Ahn doesn’t so much direct his actors so much as he allows, and what he allows Dennehy to do is nothing less but stellar. I mentioned the dialogue and how the characters talked like normal people and eschewed monologues, and that’s true, save for the last scene. The last scene contains a monologue, the frame filled with only Dennehy and young Lucas Jaye, and it is a scene so deeply felt and realized, filled with regret, hope, love, and kindness, that it elevates what was already a great film, to one of the best films of the year.
Ki Jin Kim, Ahn’s camera person, has a talent of perfectly framing every scene without making it seem purposeful. The ending scene on the porch ends with Del and Cody hugging, but Kim shows us the scene from inside the house through an open doorway before cutting to a long shot of Cody playing with his newfound friends.
Kim makes Driveways feel like a documentary mixed with a dream of a memory. There are no flashy shots or complicated setups. Nonetheless, while Driveways is visually simple, it is also visually perfect and stunning without ever bludgeoning you over the head with its beauty.
For being only Ahn’s second feature, his mastery of visual storytelling is breathtaking. He reveals so much about his characters in little ways such as how they talk, both in what they say and don’t say. He explores how we connect and learn to open ourselves up to the world around us while also grappling with the burdens of love. Driveways is one of those rare movies filled with love inside and out, each character is treated with the tenderest of mercies.