Andrew Ahn’s second feature film “Driveways” touches me a lot with its deceptively simple but ultimately sublime presentation of ordinary good people. At first, nothing much seems to happen on the surface as it slowly rolls its modest promise, but then it gradually pulls out genuine emotional moments as closely and tentatively observing more of its main characters, and we find ourselves getting to know them and their lives more than expected.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Kathy (Hong Chau) and her little young son Cody (Lucas Jaye), who are going to the house belonging to Kathy’s recently diseased older sister. Although this Asian American woman has been estranged from her older sister for many years since Cody was born, Kathy has to take care of the house as the only living close family member of her older sister, and she is planning to sell it once the house gets cleaned enough by her.
However, her older sister’s house, which is located in a suburban area of New York state, turns out to be a bigger problem than Kathy expected. While the house looks mostly fine on the outside, water and electricity have been cut off from the house, and, above all, it is full of small and big stuffs bought and then kept by her older sister, who was clearly a textbook case of reclusion. Discerning that she needs lots of time for sorting out those numerous stuffs and then cleaning the house, Kathy decides to stay in the house for next several days, and Cody is not particularly angry about his mother’s decision because that means he will not be sent to a summer camp at least.
As her mother is usually occupied with cleaning the house or doing her main job (She earns her living from the transcription of medical voice records while also hoping to be a certified nurse someday, by the way), Cody often spends time alone. While he has a tablet computer to play with, he sometimes pays attention to the surrounding environment, and he comes to get himself acquainted with Del (Brian Dennehy), a gruff old man who lives in the house right next to the one belonging to Kathy’s older sister. Although nothing much is exchanged between Del and Cody at first, they slowly become accustomed to each other’s presence, and Kathy gladly helps Del at one point when he needs someone to take him to a spot where he plays a bingo along with his old friends.
Now you may have a pretty good idea about what will happen next in the story, but the screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thurteen earnestly avoids clichés as taking time in its character development process instead. While Cody is not your average plucky precocious kid but just a nice and sensitive boy with a certain physical weakness, Del is not your typical wrinkled curmudgeon but just a gentle and thoughtful old man who has simply been whiling away his remaining living years. In case of Kathy, we can infer from her exhausted face that she has struggled a lot during recent years, but we come to gather that is just one aspect of her complex life.
Once these three main characters are fully established along its plot, the movie calmly depicts what is generated from their mutual interactions. As Cody gets closer to Del, Del responds to Cody’s innocent good will through coming to his 9th birthday party, and then he later takes Cody and Cathy to his bingo place, where they come to have lots of fun along with Del’s friends.
The movie also pays some attention to several individual moments of its main characters. While Del is reminded again of the fragility of his current life status during a sad but poignant moment between him and one of his old friends, Cody comes to have a little interest in Japanese manga thanks to two kids in the neighborhood, and Kathy comes to reflect more on how distant she was to her older sister. As handling many different stuffs put here and there in the house, she is often reminded that she does not know much about her older sister’s last years, but she has to move on anyway as continuing to live for herself and Cody.
Around the last act, the mood becomes a little tense as Cody finds that his friendship with Del may not last that long, but the movie sticks to its calm and thoughtful attitude as before, and Ahn wisely lets his main cast members carry the following key scenes. While Brian Dennehy, who sadly died shortly before the movie was released in US, is absolutely spellbinding in his effortless delivery of a plain but touching monologue on life, Hong Chau, an wonderful actress who was the saving grace of Alexander Payne’s unfortunate flop “Downsizing” (2017), demonstrates here that she is indeed a talented performer to watch, and young performer Lucas Jaye is also fine in his unadorned natural performance in addition to holding his own place well between his two older co-stars.
After he drew my attention via his short film “Dol” (2012), Ahn impressed me further with his debut feature film “Spa Night” (2016), a restrained but haunting character drama about a Korean American lad struggling with his homosexuality. After delving into his autobiographical areas in these two interesting works of his, he reaches out to a different territory in “Driveways”, and its many precious moments surely confirm to me again that he is a humane filmmaker who can present story and characters with considerable sensitivity and thoughtfulness. As many of you know, it is usually a lot more difficult to make a film about good ordinary people than making the one about merely bad people, and I am glad to report that Ahn accomplishes that task better than expected.