I first saw Driveways at the Village East Cinema in N.Y.C. during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Like many parts of a city whose descriptions oscillate between “anxiety-breeding garbage heap” and “inspiring cultural epicenter,” the theater is unexpectedly beautiful, complete with a domed golden ceiling and a full balcony. It’s the kind of theater you associate with the early days of film — the velvet seats draped with mink stoles, the air smelling of Joy by Jean Patou …
Onscreen in that ornate theater, a love story unfolded, but not the kind we’re trained to recognize. Del (the late Brian Dennehy) is a widowed senior citizen who spends his afternoons playing bingo at the local Veteran’s Center. Cody (Lucas Jaye) is a reserved 8-year-old boy, temporarily living next door to Del while his mom Kathy (Hong Chau) cleans out her late sister’s cluttered house. What begins as an unplanned babysitting gig quickly evolves into a friendship between Del and Cody.
When the film ended, a folding chair was placed in front of the screen for then-80-year-old Dennehy to sit in, surrounded by other members of the cast and director Andrew Ahn. They took turns with the mic as they fielded questions from the audience.
I saw Driveways again a year later, on a computer screen from my bed. Dennehy had passed away the week prior, movie theaters around the country had been closed for a month, and I hadn’t seen anyone other than my live-in boyfriend for about 6 weeks. The film was just as emotionally affecting and beautifully rendered as I’d remembered. In fact, watching for the second time, during a global pandemic, the sentimental impact of Del and Cody’s unlikely friendship hit me even harder.
“It’s just a simple human story that packs a wallop,” Chau wrote to me via email. “The film is a beautiful reminder that we are all fragile human beings, and that the way through pain is love.”
In some ways, the quiet neighborhood microcosm of Driveways is a more ideal place than the world we are living in — certainly the world of the last few months. Though Kathy and Cody are Asian American, Chau said she and Ahn “were on the same page in not wanting to focus on what divides us.” Aside from a microaggression or two from an overbearing white neighbor, race doesn’t play into the narrative. “The characters are interesting for myriad reasons,” Chau wrote. “I certainly would not have signed up for the film if Kathy and Cody were just two dimensional characters who existed solely to experience blatant racism or microaggressions, so that the audience could be delivered some clunky message about how racism is bad.”
One thing that does unite the characters is grief — it’s never front and center in the film, but always underlying. Kathy is grieving the death of her older sister, though between the work she needs to do on the house and raising her son, there isn’t a lot of room for her to express it; Del is quietly grieving the death of his wife, her memory never far from his mind. It’s a sad but poignant coincidence that the film’s release comes at a time of such widespread grief, though Driveways never lets the shadow of personal tragedy cloud its message: Hope.
Each character evolves throughout the film, but not in the tangible “look, I’ve changed” way that Hollywood loves implementing to illustrate growth. Development is quiet and measured, a necessary slow burn that brings you closer to characters so real it’s hard to imagine they were born on the page.
The vitality of Dennehy’s performance, in particular, is difficult to reconcile with a man who’s no longer alive, but Chau seems to think he’s along for the ride. “This is a wonderful role for him to go out on,” Chau said. “He loved to tell jokes. It’s a good thing he was an actor because he would not have made it as a comedian. He’s in Heaven right now making some crack about how he planned his passing to line up with the opening of Driveways.”
Driveways is now streaming.