Published Oct 01, 2001Based on Beverly D'Onofrio's autobiography of the same name, "Riding in Cars with Boys" chronicles Beverly's (Drew Barrymore) coming of age in the 1960s when an unplanned pregnancy forces her to put her dreams of going to college and becoming a writer on hold to take care of her son. The "boys" of the title refer to the three important men in her life, with whom she has very complicated relationships, which are the basis for the book and the film. Her father (James Woods) dotes on his eldest daughter until her penchant for dating boys drives a wedge between them and her teenage pregnancy causes almost irreparable damage to their relationship. Ray (Steve Zahn) is the slightly slow but very well-meaning suitor who gets Beverly pregnant and then marries her. Ray's irresponsibility and various addictions cause serious marital strife, forcing Beverly more often than not to be their son's sole caregiver. The relationship with her son Jason is the main focus of the film. While she loves him and gives up her dreams to raise him, she never lets him forget this fact, often blaming him outright for ruining her life.
It's a rather unsympathetic look sometimes at Beverly's child rearing, which is surprising, considering she wrote it herself. At some point the story starts to become more Jason's than Beverly's, which is good as he is a far more likeable character. The film is structured as a series of memory flashbacks that Beverly and a grown-up Jason are having as they take a road trip to track down Ray, the husband and father who left them many years before, in order to get his permission to use stories about him in her autobiography. In the flashbacks there is an ongoing attempt to mine humour from Beverly's exploits into bad parenting, but these often backfire. They usually end up seeming cruel rather than funny, with Beverly coming across as more selfish than charming.
Drew Barrymore's performance does not help this any, with the depth of the character seeming beyond her range once she leaves the teenage years. The rest of the cast fares better, with James Woods turning in a solid performance as Beverly's disappointed dad, Steve Zahn making his deadbeat Ray very likeable despite his obvious flaws, and Brittany Murphy, the new Hollywood up-and-comer playing as Beverly's lifelong best friend whose presence is one of the bright lights of the film. The series of children who play Jason at various ages are all appropriately cute and sassy (like all children in movies), and Adam Garcia as the older Jason does well at conveying the mental scars inflicted on him by a lifetime of being held responsible for holding his mother back. "Riding in Cars with Boys" does have its share of genuinely poignant moments along the way, but with all the hurt that transpires in this family throughout the story, the film's tidy ending seems a little glib and too easy for a true story.