Who has more fun than us, huh?
Taking care of her estranged sister’s estate was supposed to be a means to an end for Kathy (Hong Chau). Drive down to a house she never visited (April was twelve years her senior and the two had a falling out when she refused to help care for their mother), clean things out with her eight-year old son Cody (Lucas Jaye), put it on the market, and use the money to help get things back on track and perhaps pay for nursing school. All that changes, though, when she finally finds the right key to open the door and realizes there’s nowhere to go. It appears April was a reclusive hoarder whose disorder now shifts Kathy’s planned four-day trip to a potential summer-long endeavor of regret and self-discovery.
The pain that comes from knowing the reason why April couldn’t help when Kathy needed it rises to fill the void where her lack of grief had been. Suddenly she’s lamenting the lost time and love caused by a petty grudge, wondering if she could have assisted her sister had she allowed herself to be a part of her life. Embarrassment and shame manifest as Kathy excavates this world she never thought to enter—both to retain a sense of decorum where it comes to April’s secret and to accept her unwitting role in contributing to it via the loneliness of distance. Because death inherently uncovers that which we didn’t know about a person in life, it often has a way of providing heartache and/or understanding through hindsight.
While she might be alone in this task in literal terms, however, writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen know she’s far from it when stepping back to think about the finality of a loved one’s passing in a larger sense. So they introduce another person experiencing a similar reckoning under dissimilar circumstances in April’s next-door neighbor Del (Brian Dennehy). He’s a Korean War veteran who lived like so many of his generation. Work was his way of showing love for his wife and child—the long hours preventing him from spending time with them twisted into an excuse he can’t hold onto anymore. Only in his isolation after Vera’s passing and their daughter moving away can he acknowledge their impact and his error in taking it for granted.
Moving beyond the paved cement separating two homes that serve as mausoleums of sorts for the women who are no longer with Kathy and Del, Andrew Ahn‘s Driveways is about the inroads we travel to our souls. Just because the time may have passed on our ability to make good on the mistakes we made with the people who suffered as a result doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and ensure we don’t repeat them in the future. Maybe Kathy wasn’t there for April and maybe Del wasn’t around to prove his love for Vera in more romantic ways or help alleviate his daughter Lisa’s troubles with more paternal grace, but maybe they have a second chance with Cody. They can give him the love he deserves.
And they can do it by treating him like an equal. Rather than think of Cody as a generic young boy who should be interested in generic young boy things (see two rowdy neighbors causing trouble and wrestling each other because they have no other outlet), they choose to listen. Forcing him to play with kids like that isn’t going to erase his anxieties in some warped trial by fire. Doing it is only going to exacerbate them. Maybe what he really needs is a quiet afternoon where he can feel safe via mere proximity. Maybe Kathy’s best move is letting her son stay with Del for the day and maybe the veteran’s best offering is companionship by presence. Sometimes just showing up is worth more than anything.
It’s a lesson that’s appreciated in many different ways throughout the film’s brief 85-minutes. From a quick phone call with Cody’s absentee father to an as yet untold story of Del showing April a priceless kindness when Kathy couldn’t, presence as a concept becomes a universal entry point into the subtle yet powerful emotions on display. Because just as a driveway exists to be left empty, its presence to receive never wavers as meeting place, reunion spot, or visitation area. It’s a bridge rather than a moat—one that’s traversed by extension cords and filled with garage sale tables. It’s a place for community and an expansion of your home to be shared by whomever is willing to stop by. And for every goodbye comes many more hellos.
We feel this truth in the way the neighborhood has evolved (as prefaced by Christine Ebersole‘s Linda with the words, “I’m not being racist”). What was a rough place to grow-up for Del’s gay daughter has now been turned over to become more inclusive and understanding. As the white boys beat themselves up, two young Latinos who are Cody’s age embrace the discovery of their house’s previous owner’s manga collection. That blind machismo is pushed aside for intellect and sensitivity without the knee-jerk desire to belittle either. All the pressure to conform that has made Cody shy and introverted is relieved thanks to a few people who are willing to invite him in on his own terms. Who’s to say Kathy can’t start her life anew here too?
So while Driveways may have a simple narrative, its comings and goings hold a profound weight that renders the whole as a brilliant distillation of what it means to be alive, fallible, and willing to be better. Jaye’s Cody is a sweet kid who wears his emotions on his sleeve in a way that forces the adults around him to take stock in their actions and recognize that they feel much the same. Here’s a boy whose discomfort triggers vomiting surrounded by two characters who’ve worked tirelessly to put on a brave face when all they want to do is scream, “I’m sorry!” Both Chau and Dennehy are unforgettable in those roles as each comes to grips with the choices they’ve made and those yet to be decided.