Don't go into Riding In Cars With Boys thinking snappy title + Drew Barrymore = bubbly comedy. Or cruising the streets + '60s setting + coming-of-age + catchy pop tunes = American Graffiti-clone. Riding In Cars With Boys may start with a spring in its step, zinging with one-liners and bursting with embarrassing teen-date moments, but it soon darkens. And a 15-year-old Beverly (Drew Barrymore) getting preggers is just the beginning...
Penny Marshall's absorbing if uneven comedy-drama is a brave film. Teenage pregnancy, child neglect, poverty and drug abuse are not the stuff box-office takings are made of. And then there's Drew's role as the real-life Beverly Donofrio. Barrymore's played dowdy before - - much of Never Been Kissed presents her as a frumpy loser - - but there's more to this role than bad hair and worse clothes. Here she has to handle sequences of real dramatic weight, as well as age from 15 to 35 (there are scenes set in 1986) and make a selfish, constantly whingeing character sympathetic. One or two flounderings aside, she succeeds.
Which is vital, because she's surrounded by strong performances that would highlight any shortcomings. Brittany Murphy steps out of freak mode as best mate Fay, also up the duff at 15, and James Woods shines as Bev's flawed but big-hearted dad. But it's Steve Zahn's husband who really leaps out, the actor creating a believable, recognisable screw-up of a man.
Yet while Riding... is a brave film, it's not a fearless one. Marshall tries to leaven the misery with ill-judged humour and the greatest-hits-of-the-era soundtrack is more for Forrest Gump- like listening pleasure than Scorsese-like mood enhancement. No one's saying Riding... should be a joyless, wrist-slitting affair, but the mix of light and shade needs to be less black and white.
A journey into surprisingly murky territory, this is Penny Marshall returning to the sombre world of Awakenings after the schmaltz of The Preacher's Wife. The ride's a tad rocky and a little long, but strong performances keep everything on track.