“This is why therapists are wealthy,” begins the voiceover narration of what would ultimately be both Penny Marshall and Drew Barrymore’s most underrated work, Riding in Cars with Boys. The film, based on the 1992 memoir by Beverly Donofrio, recounts a life with big dreams in high places that would be tested at every turn by the consequences women often face for their pleasure or mistakes. The source material’s subtitle reads “Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good,” meanwhile the film adaptation was promoted with the description, “She did everything wrong but got everything right.” While the film was made in the shadow of several other ‘90s coming-of-age films (A League of Their Own or Now and Then’s influences feeling particularly evident), the story didn’t quite translate into the charming, inspiring account that Columbia Pictures billed it as. Rather, Riding in Cars with Boys remains an eye-opening look into just how many times a woman can be failed by the men in her life.

The film begins in 1961 Wallingford, Connecticut, where 11-year-old Beverly, eagerly awaiting her policeman father’s return from work to go buy that year’s Christmas tree, is attempting to teach her younger sister Janet how to kiss. “A boy puts his tongue in your mouth because he wants you to bite it off,” their mother angrily explains. It’s immediately clear thereafter that Beverly and her father (James Wood) share a special bond, one that was not reciprocated with his other children. (“When you’re in college, your sister will get her turn” is his response to Bev’s qualms about her younger sister wanting to tag along.) They have inside jokes and “their song” on the radio, “All I Have to Do is Dream.” They indeed both daydream about a wealthier life, and Bev shows him the house she’s going to buy them “when she’s rich.” But like most childhood memories, bonds can come to a screeching halt over the course of one car ride: when Pop repeatedly pokes his hesitant daughter about what she wants for Christmas, she gives in and explains that in order to peak the interest of a schoolyard crush, she requests a bra. Much like Dan Conner losing interest in his own tomboy daughter when she began menstruating on “Roseanne,” Pop immediately disengages at the sight of his innocent daughter attempting to embrace her sexuality for the first time. “Keep your mind on books, not boys,” he yells, lighting a cigarette as Bev chokes back tears.

“Why didn’t he just get her the bra? It’s certainly cheaper than a bicycle,” ponders the narrator, who we soon learn is Bev’s grown son Jason (Adam Garcia), 40 minutes late to pick up his mother in 1986 New York City. “Ah, parents and the damage they can do. Sometimes it’s endless.” But we have no idea yet just the amount of damage Jason is referring to. “You see, if she was from the South, she would’ve turned her life into a country song. But since she’s from Connecticut, she turned it into a book.” But before Bev’s dream can finally become a reality, mother and son have to clear one last hurdle together. Flashing back to her teenage years in Wallingford, Bev crushes hard on the most popular jock in school and goes so far as to crash the rich kids’ party with her friends Faye (Brittany Murphy) and Tina (Sara Gilbert, ironically) to deliver a poem she wrote about him. But much like previous expressions of her desires, it’s met with dismissal and mocking to the point that she locks herself in a bathroom already occupied by Raymond Hasek (Steve Zahn). After Ray intentionally picks a fight with the jock in question to defend her, Bev, Faye and their newfound hookups quickly flee the scene. In what can only be described as something out of Inspiration Point on “Happy Days,” Bev shows her appreciation for the first and only display of chivalry she’ll ever receive.

Needless to say, it turns out badly: not only does Bev’s father find her and Faye in the car with their new friends, but Bev suffers deeper consequences when she learns that she’s pregnant. “You are not the guy I’m supposed to end up with,” she tells Ray through clenched teeth before begrudgingly considering his marriage proposal. Unable to tell her parents in person, she first contemplates throwing herself down the stairs in an attempt to miscarry (in the film’s first of many “it’s funny because it’s sad” moments) before writing them a melodramatic letter that she hopes will display her flare for writing. She proposes tentative plans not to get married but instead finish her education the unconventional way before moving to New York to pursue her writing dreams. But “not getting married” was all her conservative, Italian parents could process. After Pop delivers another speech about how Bev’s behavior has ruined his reputation and now his life, she tells them, with the saddest and most reluctant of looks in her eyes, not to worry: they’re going to get married, because they’re in love.

What follows is a series of one unfortunate circumstance after another, and a reminder of why this was not a good movie to rewatch during a year stuck at home with our own unfortunate circumstances. “Very few people in my life have ever treated me as good as you do,” Bev informs Ray on their wedding night, words that are just as telling as they are regrettable. She soldiers on in completing her high school degree and, without so much as a decent pot to piss in, applies for every scholarship she can get her hands on—missing out on a crucial one when Jason is three and she’s forced to bring him along when Ray goes MIA once again. At every turn she questions her love for both Ray and Jason because they have cost her so much in life. “I think sometimes we love people so much that we have to be numb to it,” Faye tells her. “Because if we actually felt how much we really love them, it would kill us. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means your heart’s too big.” And it also means that doing the “right” thing by way of your culture’s social norms does not necessarily mean doing the “right” thing in reality.

Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how much easier Bev’s life would have been if she had never forced herself to marry a moron, as her father so eloquently put it in his first words to his grandson. And as if any of the incidents that happened to the family during Jason’s childhood weren’t traumatic enough, we’re forced to consider the ways that Bev was truly doing the best she could when we rejoin her and Jason in the present. “I was good mother! No, I was a great mother! For what I had to go through to keep you in one piece!” she screams. “Who says I’m in one piece? Who?” he yells back. “You’re the most normal person I know,” she replies with a smirk.

Ultimately, what was marketed by Columbia Pictures as an empowering coming-of-age tale by Penny Marshall was actually one of more mature social commentary, suggesting all the ways one woman’s life could have gone differently if she’d been allowed to trust her instincts rather than her society’s punishment for displays of female sexuality. Critics at the time lauded Steve Zahn’s performance, citing the film as being unmemorable without it, when it’s actually Barrymore’s surprisingly compelling growl as a white-trash Italian that makes Riding in Cars with Boys worthy of future revisits. Well, that and the realization of how much damage parents can truly cause without meaning to. “Jason blames me for every horrible thing that happened in his life. Can you imagine?” Bev tells her father in the film’s final scene. A chuckle crosses his face as he starts to hum their song. All is not forgotten, but as Bev puts her head on her father’s shoulder as he drives, the words of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” can’t help but come to mind: “Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: Alanis Morissette: Under Rug Swept

Under Rug Swept is still Alanis Morissette’s strongest album to date, angrier than the wom…