There’s a certain type of independent film that you tend to see quite frequently towards the end of the year. It’s the type of film where a single mother and her precociously intelligent child move to a new town and get to know their neighbors. Usually, the child has to deal with a bully or two while the mother reflects on her own rebellious past. Almost inevitably, there’s a cantankerous older neighbor who seems a little bit intimidating at first but who eventually turns out to be a decent guy. That older neighbor is often played by a character actor who has never quite gotten the appreciation that he deserves.
Driveways is one of those films. This time, the mother is named Kathy (Hong Chau) and her 9 year-old son is named Cody (Lucas Jaye). Cody is intelligent but shy. He struggles to fit in. He worries about the fact that his mom is constantly smoking and whenever she curses, he gives her a slightly judgmental look. If he gets too anxious, he has a habit of vomiting. He’s one of those kids who you just want to protect from the outside world and assure him that everything’s going to (eventually) be okay.
The neighbor is Del and he’s played by the late, great Brian Dennehy. Del is a veteran of the Korean War and a widower. He spends a lot of time sitting out on his porch. He’s a nice guy and one of the things that I appreciated about this film is that Del was nice from the minute he first appeared. Usually, in films like this, it takes a while for the neighbor to let down his defenses and show that he’s not some sort of bitter ogre. Usually, there’s all sorts of conflicts and “Get off my lawn” moments but, in Driveways, Del pretty much warms up to Kathy and Cody as soon as he meets them. He shows Cody how drink from a hose. Kathy gives him a ride to VFW Hall, where he plays bingo with his friends. Soon, Del is Cody’s only friend on the block and Del is also one of the few sources of support that Kathy has as she cleans out her recently deceased sister’s home.
There’s not really a lot of drama in Driveways. There is one annoying neighbor named Linda (Christine Ebersole), who shows up for some of the film’s weaker moments. And there’s a wonderfully acted scene where Del goes shopping with friend (played by Jerry Adler) who has Alzheimer’s. Otherwise, this is a low-key film about three people who are at the beginning, the middle, and the end of life. It’s occasionally a little predictable but it’s sweet-natured film and it has a good heart.
And, most importantly, it gives Brian Dennehy one final great role. When Dennehy passed away earlier this year, Tommy Boy was soon trending on twitter because, whenever a great actor dies, it seems that their worst films always end up trending. (This is largely because people on twitter have terrible taste.) Dennehy was a great actor with a commanding screen presence and it’s somewhat surprising that he died without having ever been nominated for an Oscar. In Driveways, he brings Del to poignant life. At the end of the film, he delivers a lengthy monologue about his life and its a powerful moment and one that deserves awards consideration. A supporting actor nomination for Brian Dennehy would not only be a way to acknowledge a great performance but also a great career, in which he appeared in a lot more films than just Tommy Boy. Here’s hoping!