Things were never easy for Beverly Donofrio - and that may explain why she never made things easy for anyone else. Her inability to play the hand fate dealt her is the crux of the engaging, over-long Riding In Cars With Boys.
Based on the real-life Donofrio's memoirs, the movie tracks Beverly (Drew Barrymore) over 15 years, interspersing the narrative with scenes of her grown son. It's immediately clear that Beverly controls this relationship, much to her son's frustration.
We first meet Beverly as a pre-teen, bonding lovingly with her father (James Woods) - until she tells him she wants a bra for Christmas so the boy of her dreams will notice her. Dad doesn't take kindly to the idea, and the moment screeches to a halt.
Fast forward to a teen party, where Beverly shyly approaches her newest crush. Because she's too nervous to speak, she hands the boy a poem she wrote. He makes fun of it, and a sobbing Beverly flees to the bathroom. There, she meets her unlikely defender, a dropout named Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). She doesn't exactly fall for him - dreams don't die that easily - but she finds his attention flattering. Next thing we know, she's pregnant and married.
For the remainder of the film, Beverly tries to deal with her situation - a dropout wed to a frequently unemployed carpet installer and heroin addict. She doesn't give up, instead pursuing her dream of a college education and writing career.
Director Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own) lays on the emotions thick; she needs to trust her audiences more. Still, she and screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward know to lighten the tone when necessary. And we get the distinct feeling Marshall, who was a teen mother herself, has a real feel for the territory she covers here.
In a role far less comic than her usual fare, Barrymore gives a performance that's nuanced, assured and captivating. There's an innate vulnerability to her on-screen persona that audiences lap up. She's the little sister everyone wants to protect - even when the person she most needs protecting from is herself.
Riding In Cars With Boys
Starring Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, James Woods
Directed by Penny Marshall
Rated PG-13 (Adult language, drugs, sexuality)
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time 122 minutes
Sun score * * *