Driveways: The Places You’ll Go, by David Bax
Andrew Ahn made an assured and moving feature directorial debut with 2016’s Spa Night, a story of a young man struggling with who he is and who he’s not in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Now he’s returned with Driveways, a much different tale. Instead of the sodium glow of late night L.A., we get the soft warmth and soothing quiet of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Yet Ahn maintains and deepens his empathy, his patience and his understanding that pain is often something you live with, not just experience.
Kathy (Hong Chau) and her son, Cody (Lucas Jaye), have come to the small town where Kathy’s estranged sister lived–mostly as a hoarder and a hermit–until her recent death. The task set before Kathy is to clean out her sister’s dank and cluttered house on a leafy, exurban road with no sidewalks and get the place onto the market. The job takes longer than planned but, while Kathy becomes frustrated, young Cody strikes up a genial accord with Del (Brian Dennehy), the crusty but benign Korean war veteran who lives next door.
Dennehy passed away earlier this year. He’s reportedly got a few more performances in the can awaiting release but you need look no further than Driveways for evidence of his relaxed yet remarkable presence and talent. Del’s easy rapport with Cody elevates both actors’ work, yet Dennehy lets us see, just behind his eyes, the unresolved parts of Del’s past and the uncertainty about his future. Meanwhile, Chau, whose film work in Inherent Vice and Downsizing has tended toward the delightfully exaggerated, returns to the interiority and sincerity she displayed on HBO’s Treme. Ahn fills in the edges of his little ecosystem with turns from stalwart character actors Christine Ebersole and Jerry Adler.
Cinematographer Ki Jin Jim also makes a welcome return from Spa Night. Like Ahn, he prioritizes the characters; many of his shots are deceptively simple-looking portraiture. But there’s also a motif of people looking left or right into a frame devoid of others, implying that, whether they acknowledge it or not, they’re facing off against the encroachment of the unknown. In one of the most quietly stunning shots in the film, Chau stands at the top of her sister’s driveway, looking at nothing until a rented roll-off dumpster, being unloaded from a delivery truck, glides slowly, imposingly toward her from the other side of the screen.
That shot is actually implied to be from the perspective of Del’s front porch, suggesting that–even in this isolated, scary moment–Kathy is not as alone as she thinks she is. Ahn is not pollyannaish about the the kindness of neighbors. Del acknowledges with a heavy heart that life for his lesbian daughter (Samantha Jones) “wasn’t easy … in this town.” But Driveways believes in the potential and the responsibility of neighborliness.
In the film’s most potentially sappy but ultimately rewarding sequence, Kathy throws Cody a birthday party at a rollerskating rink to which none of the invited local kids shows up. The one friend who does arrive is Del, adorably shuffling past the arcade games bearing a present. With the octogenarian not about to strap on skates any time soon, the trio decide to relocate to bingo night at the VFW hall. In Driveways, it’s not the places you go that give life joy and meaning. It’s the people with whom you share those places.