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Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Knocked up and thrown for a loop

Riding in Cars With Boys

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Thank You, Boys
Director: Penny Marshall
Running time: 131 minutes
Language: English
Opens April 20

The reason why I don't watch splatter-horror is because there's another genre of cinema whose scare factor goes far and beyond conventional chain-sawing, whose little details can get right inside the retina to replay themselves again and again against the backdrop of my nightmares. This genre is what's known as "women's movies," and let me tell you -- they get better with each passing year. Though you swear not to scream this time ("No! No! No!"), you always come out of the experience sore-throated and shattered, your nerves resembling a frayed dishrag at a ramen shop. Let's admit it, Wes Craven cannot do that for you.

News photo
Drew Barrymore and Cody Arens in "Riding in Cars With Boys"

The latest horror-inducing adrenaline gush is "Riding in Cars With Boys," based on the book by Beverly Donofrio. She became a mother at 15, got divorced when she was 23 and wrote her autobiography at 35. "Riding in Cars With Boys" documents her youth, which consisted of work and child-care while she applied to various college scholarship programs that she could not get because she had a child. Her husband was an alcoholic and junkie, who blew even the money for their son's aspirin on a fix ("I swear to God, it was just a little fix!"). Donofrio spent her 15th summer riding in a car with a boy and had to pay for it with two decades of her life. Are you screaming now? Thought so.

Penny Marshall, who herself became a working mother at 18, directs this fiery gem of a work, but it is mostly the high-temperature performance of Drew Barrymore as Beverly that keeps it hot and glowing. She has never been so feisty. From the start, Barrymore lands every punch and runs all around the ring, never out of breath or losing concentration. The part requires it, for it's all about fighting. How hard and long Beverly had to stay in there, not allowing herself to stop and relax even for a minute. All because she rode in a car with a boy.

In 1965, Beverly is a small-town girl with a cop dad (James Woods) and housewife mom (Lorraine Bracco). From grade school, she has been interested in two things: boys and literature. She dreams vaguely of becoming a writer and specifically of deep-kissing the cutest boy in her class. The summer she turns 15, she meets the sweet and dorky Ray (Steve Zahn) at a party. Ray is not very bright and comes from a trashy family, but it's OK for her, since all she wants to do is play at love. The relationship lasts until fall, when Beverly is ready to ditch Ray and take up her studies again.

Then wham! She learns she's pregnant, and her straitlaced father forces her to marry Ray. The baby is born nine months later, to a teenage couple living in a housing project, neither of them with a high school diploma or future prospects. For Beverly, the worst part of it is that her baby is a boy. Boys have been her ruin -- she doesn't want anything to do with them, but now she has to raise one. Yuck.

Thus begins Beverly's struggle to raise herself and her family, and the entire burden is on her shoulders. Ray is hopeless: drunk, stoned and unemployed most of the time. But his son Jason loves him, and they have a great time while Beverly has to worry about money, scold, yell and fume. While her former classmates are going to dances and planning for college, she's working double-shifts at a burger stand and coming home to change diapers.

Beverly's only solace is her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy), also a teenage mom but abandoned by her soldier husband for another woman in Vietnam. Together they weather the storm of teen parenthood until Fay's family breaks them apart, convinced that Beverly is an evil influence. Of all the losses in her life, this is the hardest to take, but Beverly bites her lip and gathers up the strands of her life. She tells herself she will work harder and become a writer no matter what.

See how scary a woman's life can be? The incredible effort required, the endless toil, the deep dark knowledge that whatever pleasure she gets out of life always comes with a risk and at a price -- Beverly learns all this the hard way. The payoff is that she becomes stronger and smarter with every step, but this also means that she has to push herself even harder since the standards she sets for herself are always rising. Ray, on the other hand, is OK with being an addict. As far as he's concerned, he loves his family, but this doesn't contradict his only desire in life: the next little fix. The scariest scene of all is when a middle-aged Ray says with utter conviction: "Women forgive men. They always will. They can't help themselves."

He's probably right. Aaaaaagghh!

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