Riding in Cars with Boys is a 2001 American biographical film based on the autobiography of the same name by Beverly Donofrio, about a woman who overcame difficulties, including being a teen mother, and who later earned a master's degree. The movie's narrative spans the years 1961 to 1986. It stars Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, and James Woods. It was the last film directed by Penny Marshall. Although the film is co-produced by Beverly Donofrio, many of its details differ from the book.
In 1961, eleven-year-old Beverly "Bev" Donofrio rides with her father, Connecticut police officer Leonard, to the Christmas tree lot. When she reveals that she wants a bra for Christmas in order to get the attention of a boy she likes, Leonard tells her she is too young to be thinking about boys, and to focus on books.
In 1965, Bev is now an intelligent, but naïve fifteen-year-old. Her dream is to go to college in New York City and become a writer. She joins her friends, Fay and Tina, at a party. Fay finds her older boyfriend Bobby, who is about to be deployed to Vietnam, while Bev gives a love letter to a popular boy named Sky. When Sky reads the letter aloud, Bev flees to the bathroom. She is consoled by Ray, a stranger, who then defends Bev's honor and fights with Sky. Bev and Ray, with Fay and Bobby, flee the party. The four go to a lookout, where Bobby and Fay have sex. Bev is overcome by Ray's kindness, and they too have sex. Leonard, who is on duty, drives up and brings them to the police station, where Bev claims that they only kissed.
Bev discovers that she is pregnant. She tells Ray, initially turns down his offer to get married, then placates her shocked parents by agreeing to a hasty wedding. At the reception, everyone is avoiding Bev, so Fay publicly announce that she is also pregnant. Fay confides to Bev that her father wanted her to put the baby up for adoption, but she and Bobby will be getting married instead. The two girls eventually celebrate the fact they will be mothers together.
Over the next few months, the girls bemoan missing out on three things: their childhood, their high school prom, and an education. Bev gives birth to son Jason, while Fay has daughter Amelia. Bev continues to pursue her education. When Jason is three, she wins the chance for a college scholarship. Unfortunately, Bev's interview goes badly when she is forced to take Jason along. Although the interviewer praises Bev's writings, he states that she has too many distractions. Later, Fay reveals that she and Bobby are getting divorced, because he met someone while stationed in Hawaii. Bev tells Fay that she's not sure if she loves Jason, because his birth has cost her so much. When Jason almost drowns in Fay's pool, Bev vows to be more attentive.
On Jason's seventh birthday, several people from Bev's high school show up to his party: old friend Tina is now engaged and going to NYU; and Tommy, who had a crush on Bev, just graduated from Berkeley. He suggests that Bev move her family to California and pursue her education there, since the state offers financial aid. Ray agrees to the plan, but on the day they are supposed to leave, he confesses that he is a heroin addict and spent their savings on drugs. Bev helps him detox, but Ray sneaks out to get more drugs. When he tells Bev that it's impossible for him to quit, she tells him he should leave instead. Ray agrees, but young Jason chases after him in tears, then tells Bev that he hates her for making Ray leave.
Two years later, Bev still yearns for California. She and Fay help Lizard (one of Ray's old friends) dry weed in Bev's oven. Jason, still bitter, tells Grandpa Leonard, who arrests the mothers (Lizard had left). Fay's brother bails them out, using up their savings, on the condition that Fay and Amelia move away with him and cut off contact with Bev. Bev harshly tells the smug Jason that he ruined their lives. She claims that it's his fault Amelia moved away.
In 1985, Bev and Jason are driving to see Ray. She managed to get her college degree and has written her memoir, but needs Ray to sign a waiver or else her book will not be published. While driving, Jason tells Bev that he wants to transfer from NYU to Indiana University, but Bev refuses, saying that he is getting the education that she never could. Jason calls his now-girlfriend Amelia with the bad news. Amelia is dejected but assures him that she is not angry. Arriving at Ray's trailer, Bev explains why they are there. When Ray's wife, Shirley, demands $100,000, Bev screams at Ray and storms out. Jason follows her and calls her selfish for only caring about her book when he finally got to see his father again. He accuses her of being a bad mother and she storms off.
Ray comes outside and talks with Jason, stating that leaving was the best thing he could have done for Jason and he believes it's the only reason Jason turned out so well. He sneaks the signed papers to Jason. Jason finds Bev, who insists that she was a great mother who sacrificed everything for him. Jason reveals that he will transfer in order to be with Amelia and apologizes to Bev for ruining her life. Bev softens and tells Jason that she is proud of him and thinks of him as the best thing in her life. She also tells him that she holds herself responsible for her various mistakes and poor choices, and that she never meant to blame him for them. She gives him her car to drive to Indiana.
Beverly is forced to call Leonard for a ride. She complains to him how Jason blames her for everything wrong in his life. She then realizes that she herself has done the same to her father. Together, they sing a song from her childhood as they drive away.
The film received mixed reviews. It holds a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 109 reviews with an average rating of 5.3/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Riding in Car with Boys suffers from mixing grit and pathos with cuteness and comedy. Ironically, many critics found Zahn's character more compelling and three-dimensional than Barrymore's". Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "A film like this is refreshing and startling in the way it cuts loose from formula and shows us confused lives we recognize ... This movie is closer to the truth: A lot depends on what happens to you, and then a lot depends on how you let it affect you". In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden praised Steve Zahn's performance: "It is hard to imagine what Riding in Cars With Boys would have been without Mr. Zahn's brilliantly nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Ray, who goes through more changes than Beverly". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and found that the "strength of the movie lies in these performances and in the situational humor, though ultimately the ending is disappointing, attempting to wrap up loose ends far too neatly".
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C+" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "... every scene is bumpered with actorly business and production detail that says more about nostalgia for the pop culture of earlier American decades than about the hard socioeconomic truths of being a poor, young, undereducated parent". In her review for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley criticized Drew Barrymore's performance: "Barrymore, a delightful comic actress, has the spunk for the role, but can't do justice to the complexities of Beverly's conflicted personality. So she comes off as abrasive and neglectful as opposed to headstrong and ambitious, winning no empathy for this sour single mom". Edward Guthmann also had problems with Barrymore's performance in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle: "She never relaxes, never surrenders to the character, but instead tries to justify her and to make us like her despite her selfishness and poor mothering. American actors as a rule are terrified of playing unsympathetic characters, particularly when they've gained the celebrity and box-office appeal that Barrymore has". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan criticized the film's direction: "At home with the comedy, even if it is too broad, the director brings next to nothing to the serious scenes; they simply sit there on the screen, empty and forlorn".
Riding in Cars with Boys grossed $30,165,536 in the United States, and $5,577,772 in other territories, for a worldwide total of $35,743,308.
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