One of the final big-screen credits for the late actor Brian Dennehy, the exquisitely fine-tuned indie Driveways centres on three characters thrown together under unhappy circumstances. Director Andrew Ahn, working from a script by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, introduces us first to Kathy (Hong Chau), a single mother who's hauled her young son Cody (Lucas Jaye) across several states to help clear out the house of her recently deceased sister. Given that sis was a prodigious hoarder, we soon grasp this is quite the task for one mourning woman to take on. But then an extra pair of hands present themselves: those of Del (Dennehy), the widowed Army veteran who lives in the house next door, and who seems to have been waiting for an opportunity to serve anew, if not as a removals man (he's getting on, and his back isn't what it used to be), then certainly as a babysitter for Cody as Kathy closes out her sister's accounts. A sense of finality hangs over the early scenes, such that you might initially misinterpret that title as a synonym for dead ends. A neighbour on the other side of the street (Christine Ebersole) lets slip she's been at a loss since her husband lost his job in the '08 crash; there appears nothing for these people to do save pack up, cultivate their gardens, and wait for the inevitable, as Del looks to be doing sat on his front porch. Yet Ahn introduces himself - in remarkable style - as too much the optimist for that to be the case for long. What follows is a film that correlates in close, rewarding, moving fashion with the Midwest of last year's Best Picture winner Nomadland. Where Chloé Zhao went roaming, Ahn has stayed put, committing instead to poking around and seeing what life remains on America's doorsteps a decade on from 2008, low-key though it may be. These driveways aren't dead ends, it turns out, but a place of meetings, intersections, sometimes fraught but mostly fond interactions.
If the whole feels utterly unlike the bulk of modern American cinema, that's because Driveways reveals a new talent whose sincerity around flesh-and-blood people recalls certain East Asian filmmakers: the warmth coming off the screen matches that of Ang Lee's early work (Lee's regular collaborator James Schamus is a producer here) and the very best Kore-eda films. From the wordless opening movement that establishes Kathy and Cody as a quiet team, Ahn displays an uncommonly sure feel for these figures, and how they're likely to react in any given situation. Further elevated by Chau's typically unshowy performance, the frazzled, sometimes overwhelmed yet surprisingly resilient Kathy may just be one of the most beautiful characterisations in 21st century cinema, and she has the least pronounced arc here. More often than not, the focus lands on the growing bond between man and boy, an impossibly tired movie trope to which Ahn brings disarmingly fresh eyes. In Cody, he sees a hyper-sensitive soul - a real mother's boy; you gulp when he's packed off on a playdate with a couple of roughhousing WWE fans - being gradually coaxed out of his shell, to Kathy's evident relief and pride. And then there's the rocksolid Del, with his endlessly humanising meals-for-one, as safe a pair of hands as you could hope to leave your child with on days when you've got toilets to clean and documents to sign. Dennehy is great with everyone here: he has some especially tender scenes with befuddled vet Jerry Adler, an actor whom you suspect might still outlive us all. Even when Del's life story comes pouring out late on, it's not in a "movie" way - or, rather, it's in the way of a superior movie, tempered with such experience, humour and insight that it never feels like an actor's monologue. No surprise that Driveways was embraced as a source of respite when it appeared on US streaming services in early summer 2020, what with Everything That Was Going On: it's a film that, for 85 minutes, invites us to watch no more and no less than a few hundred square yards of America being set right by good people. That's a valuable thing for a movie to show us. At a time when aspiration seems either doomed or deadly, and where we've been given cause to wonder where the heroes have gone, that may be more valuable than ever for a movie to show us.
Driveways is currently available to stream via Sky Cinema/NOW TV.