What could be sweeter than daddy-daughter date night? Christmas is coming and Mr. Donofrio takes his pre-teen daughter Beverly out for some special bonding and Christmas-tree shopping. Beverly is a delightfully honest young lady and she tells her father everything. But when the subject turns to boys and training bras, Dad can’t handle it. "I’m telling you nicely: You’re too young," is all he can say. We can all guess where that leads. . . .
Half a decade later, Beverly is 15. She’s smart. She’s college bound. Thanks to star Drew Barrymore's uncanny ability to generate empathy for her big-screen characters, her awkwardness and boy-craziness are an endearing and vicariously painful combination. She knows what she wants out of life, but her lack of direction regarding the opposite sex haunts her. Ray Hasek isn’t Beverly’s idea of the man she wants to marry. He’s a high school dropout with appalling verbal skills and little ambition. But when he stands up for her at a party, she’s overcome by his kindness. Beverly’s only thinking of a summer fling, but when she finds out she’s expecting Ray’s baby, her shortsighted plans come crashing down around her.
Instead of college and a future in writing, it’s a hasty marriage and low-income housing. Her father is ashamed of her and publicly humiliates her to protect his ego. Entertaining thoughts of a sweet rags-to-riches story? Forget it. Ray leaves her for a mistress called heroin. Beverly struggles just to earn her high school equivalency degree. She’s turned down for college scholarships. And she's forced to support herself—and her son—by plying various minimum-wage jobs.
positive content: Unusually, most of this film’s positive content comes from the responsible portrayal of negative behavior. Mr. Donofrio is a rigid dad who holds his reputation in higher regard than his daughter's well-being. For instance, when Beverly tells her parents she’s pregnant, he responds, "You’ve got a plan? I had a plan too. I was gonna work hard. Raise a good family. Hold my head up proud. That plan is dead. ... You were special. You ruined your life and you broke my heart." The movie squarely condemns his attitude by showing how it forces Beverly into a dead-end marriage for the sake of appearances. Still, Mr. Donofrio isn’t pigeonholed as a self-righteous jerk. His pride is condemned, but his uprightness is not, and over the course of the movie, his character softens significantly.
Further, Riding in Cars With Boys paints a picture of hard living without undue sensationalism or glorification. So rare in Hollywood stories, repercussions are justly assigned to actions. Ray experiences violent withdrawal symptoms when he tries to quit his heroin habit. Beverly’s life as a teenage mom is not made out to be sweet or easy. She is forced to put her own dreams on hold to care for her son, Jason. She struggles with ugly issues like feeling imprisoned by motherhood before she’s ready for it. When she asks Ray to leave so he won’t ruin his family’s life with his heroin addiction, the scene is wrenching. He truly loves his son, but he believes coming clean is too great a price to pay in order to stay in Jason’s life.
Finally, Beverly’s own selfishness and self-pity is denounced when an older Jason stands up to her and challenges her to think of someone other than herself. Jason’s girlfriend also gets in a great line about his need to stop parenting his own mother, a syndrome that unfortunately affects too many teens in dysfunctional families today.
sexual content: Beverly and her little sister discuss French kissing. Young Beverly wants a training bra to impress a boy in her class ("Pop, you can’t negotiate my boobs. Whether or not I’m too young to have 'em, I’ve got 'em. I’m a woman"). All grown up, Beverly’s best friend Fay and her boyfriend Bobby can’t keep their hands off each other. They make out at a party (the audience sees her panties as he lifts her dress). They go at it in the back of a car while Beverly and Ray kiss in the front seat. After they’re caught in a no-parking zone by Beverly and Fay’s fathers (who both happen to be police officers), Beverly tries to excuse her actions by explaining, "I just met Ray, and I never go past second base with a guy I just met, which means nothing below the waist. My waist, not his." Both Beverly and Fay get pregnant out of wedlock (no explicit sex scenes are shown). Twice, Beverly changes her clothes onscreen and the audience sees a glimpse of her bra and a shot of her in a slip.
violent content: On their first meeting, Ray punches an arrogant bully in Beverly’s defense. Later, Beverly locks Ray out of the house and he breaks a window to get in. After Ray’s irresponsibility leaves Beverly disappointed again, she hits him several times in front of Jason (she doesn’t do any damage, and he kicks a trash can in response).
crude or profane language: One muffled f-word. A handful each of s-words and milder profanities. About eight uses of God’s name in vain.
drug and alcohol content: Teens drink and smoke at a party. Even at 15, Fay and Beverly are frequent smokers. Raising Jason during the high-flying seventies, Ray and Beverly do their share of drugs. "Recreational" drugs eventually lead to Ray's addiction to heroin. For the last half of the movie, he’s perpetually high. He also seems to always have a bottle of booze in hand. Ray’s friend Lizard tries to "help" Beverly by offering her money to dry marijuana for him. She and Fay both get busted, but Lizard gets off clean.
conclusion: Besides a fair-sized helping of poignant cinematic moments, Riding in Cars With Boys has some fantastic points to make. In typical postmodern fashion, the film is timid about making them, but they’re valuable messages nonetheless. Actions have consequences. Period. You can’t escape them. What’s more, foisting your problems off on someone else is not a good way to deal with those consequences. The movie exposes a lot of wounds. But it also leaves them open for healing.
Because of its seriousness and pacing, this is not a film with a lot of innate teen appeal. Which is good, because the language and drug scenes are raw. And Fay and Beverly’s exploits with boys are not modest, to say the least. On the other hand, family life—particularly the life of a broken family in a poor community—is not something that can easily be wrapped up and tied with a bow. In a world where kids from broken homes are in the majority, this movie will certainly tug heart-strings. My fear is that, for teens with no adult support system, Riding in Cars will encourage them to wallow in their misery, rather than providing direction out of it. But for loving and involved parents of older teens, it could provide opportunities to discuss some hard issues: the importance of father-daughter relationships, the fact that spur-of-the-moment choices sometimes have lifelong consequences, etc. This movie is not pretty, but it’s thoughtful. And it could give moms and dads a chance to talk to their daughters and make sure they’re riding in cars with the right boys.