This rendering of Beverly Donofrio''s autobiographical book about a woman who believes in her literary abilities, and has faith that she can overcome the unplanned detours life has dealt her, is a scattershot affair. Filled with likable performances and lovely camerawork by Miroslav Ondricek, Riding in Cars With Boys nevertheless has a cobbled-together feel. At times, it seems as if significant chunks of the storyline are missing, and that the film''s narrative structure, which floats back and forth between the present and the past, is a last-ditch necessity rather than an intentional approach. The story covers a 20-year span in the life of Beverly Donofrio, and Drew Barrymore tackles the challenge of aging from 15 to 35 with impressive gumption despite incomplete success. Still, this marks Barrymore''s most demanding film role yet, and her bravery in taking on a character who is not totally sympathetic does not pass unnoticed.
Bev''s story is that of a smart, reasonably attractive, and sexually active 15-year-old living with her parents in 1965 Connecticut. Her dreams of a writing career and going to NYU are shattered when she finds herself knocked-up by the sweet but dopey high school dropout, Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). In order to appease her stern Catholic parents, Bev agrees to marry Ray, although she still believes that becoming a 15-year-old parent won''t derail her eventual life plans. Ray is at least smart enough to know that Bev is the best thing that ever happened to him, even though Bev regards him and their baby Jason as little more than speed bumps along her life''s journey. These parts of the story have to be admired, if only for their rarity: a young woman who has such complete faith in her own abilities, and an honestly portrayed young mother who is not always a selfless parent and nurturer. Usually when such unrepentant female characters make it to the screen, they are either punished for their sins by movie''s end or portrayed as harridans, sluts, or mentally unstable. You get a sense of this being a movie that femme-centric filmmaker Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart) might wish she had made. As is, Penny Marshall does a credible job with the small behavioral moments, but the script by Morgan Upton Ward too often resorts to big broad strokes where nuanced shading might have been more appropriate.
Zahn, as the inept husband, and Brittany Murphy, as Bev''s best friend, are wonderful to watch, bringing some character modulation to their roles that the script lacks. Bev''s parents (Lorraine Bracco and James Woods) are noticeably undeveloped, especially her policeman father whose severe disapproval is given such narrative force for such a comparatively short amount of screen time.
Riding in Cars With Boys is an article of faith for girls who just wanna have fun; the only problem is that the movie doesn''t go all the way.