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Review: The moving drama ‘Driveways’ features a superb Brian Dennehy in one of his last roles

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The three principal characters in the quietly, achingly lovely “Driveways” are the kind of people who tend to keep to themselves — until suddenly, one day, they don’t. Two of them, a woman and her young son, have taken up residence in a strange home to settle a late family member’s affairs; the third, their next-door neighbor, doesn’t seem all that friendly at first. But appearances can be misleading, especially if you don’t take the time to look past them — a charge that could hardly be leveled at this slender but remarkably patient movie.

The woman, Kathy (Hong Chau), and her 8-year-old, Cody (Lucas Jaye), have come to clean out the house of Kathy’s recently deceased sister, April, and put it up for sale. The task before them is daunting, and not just because of the stacked boxes and heavy clutter, or the dead cat that Cody is unfortunate enough to stumble on in the bathroom. April was an exceedingly private person, and Kathy pores over her sister’s belongings with an unmistakable sense of regret, even guilt, at not having known her better.

She’s fairly guarded herself, and particularly protective of Cody, a smart, sensitive kid who doesn’t make new friends easily. He has a tougher time connecting with the rowdier neighborhood kids than he does with Del (Brian Dennehy), an older widower who lives next door. Despite a gruff first exchange rooted in a minor misunderstanding, Kathy and Del’s kinder, more neighborly instincts soon kick in. One afternoon Del finds himself unexpectedly looking after Cody following a babysitting mishap and not minding in the slightest: “He’s good company,” Del assures Kathy when she tries to extricate Cody from his cozy reading spot on Del’s porch. A friendship is born.

While “Driveways” is hardly the first movie about the gradually developing bond between a gruff older man and a cute, precocious kid, it’s too delicate and sure-footed to be reduced to a formulaic description. (Suffice to say that this is not the indie version of Pixar’s “Up” or Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.”) The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, are not afraid to use a little comedy to nudge their story along, whether it’s a bout of stress vomiting or a raucous bingo night. But much of “Driveways” lingers in a less emphatic register of feeling, in that rueful gray zone between humor and sorrow.

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Hong Chau in the movie "Driveways."
(FilmRise)

The movie sketches in a few details here and there — Kathy is studying to be a nurse, Del is a Korean War veteran and has a daughter — but is otherwise light on conflict and exposition, and director Andrew Ahn doesn’t embellish what he’s given. He has a gift for expressive reticence, for teasing out hidden depths of emotion that his characters are too shy or reserved to convey. That talent served him well in his 2016 writing-directing debut, “Spa Night,” a perceptive drama about a Korean American teenager exploring his sexual and cultural identity in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

“Driveways” may suggest a departure from “Spa Night” in its broader character focus and its shift in geography (it was shot in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), and also because Ahn didn’t write the film himself. But the movies, both shot by cinematographer Ki Jin Kim, are of a piece in their emotional nuance and unshowy sense of place. And Ahn has found his own deft way of personalizing the material: He has spoken in interviews about choosing to cast Kathy and Cody with Asian American actors — a choice that, without materially altering the script, shows how an element of cultural difference can enrich a story without calling attention to itself. It’s also a matter-of-fact reminder that cross-cultural friendships happen every day in America, even if you wouldn’t always know it from the movies.

The differences here are unspoken but hard to miss. You might sense it in Kathy’s initially sharp demeanor, her wariness about being perceived as that much more of an outsider in a new neighborhood. (Then again, you might not.) Chau, whose screen credits include “Downsizing” and “Big Little Lies,” is superbly understated here; she internalizes Kathy’s thoughts and doubts beautifully. Jaye does the same for Cody in a performance that’s entirely devoid of the usual cutesy mugging; we see much of the story from his perspective, including his immediate recognition of Del as a kindred spirit. And Del himself, played by Dennehy in one of his final screen roles, is as forceful and tender a creation as any in this great actor’s body of work.

There isn’t a hint of overt speechifying in the movie, but Del does get a short, sweet monologue in which he reflects on his life: about his military days, his decades-long marriage, his blessings and failures as a husband and father. It’s probably nothing that Cody can directly relate to just yet, but in summing up a lifetime’s worth of joys and regrets, Del can’t help but pierce the air between them. “Driveways,” a movie that’s poignant now for reasons we doubtless wish it weren’t, shows us how unlikely people can come together under imperfect circumstances and fit together perfectly. It also shows us how fleeting that perfection can be.

‘Driveways’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: Available May 8, via virtual cinemas, Laemmle Theatres; also on VOD, May 7




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