By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 10, 2020 at 8:16 PM

It’s easy to overlook or underestimate "Driveways." I would know: I did. 

The drama first came to my attention (or lack thereof) at last fall’s Milwaukee Film Festival, and while I was intrigued by the cast – Hong Chau, Brian Dennehy – it was easy to push the movie back behind the blurred barrage of bigger, shinier objects on the schedule. At passing glance, it was a small 83-minute movie with a plot synopsis dangerously close to the problematic "Gran Torino" and fairly identical to every other festival-approved coming-of-age indie tearjerker. If I missed this tale of an unlikely cross-generational friendship, I probably wouldn’t have to wait long to be adequately whelmed by the next one. Even the name seemed forgettable and unassuming. How special could "Driveways" be?

Months later, I’d get my answer: quite. Andrew Ahn’s sophomore feature is a modest bit of a miracle, a delicate yet rich snapshot of seemingly disparate lives in transition that’s a lovely final statement to one great career and a quietly confident early chapter to another just beginning.

Cody (Lucas Jaye) is ringing in his summer and his ninth birthday in decidedly unspectacular fashion: traveling to a pleasant if anonymous New York suburb to help his single mom Kathy (Chau, "Inherent Vice" and HBO’s "Watchmen") clean out her distant deceased sister’s now-vacant house. Well, vacant’s not entirely the right word, as the home is jam-packed with skyscrapers of hoarded clutter (plus maybe a dead animal) to the point of being uninhabitable. 

There’s one bright spot to Cody’s summer excursion: their next-door neighbor Del, a widowed Korean War veteran played by the late great Dennehy. In between bingo at the VFW with mentally deteriorating war buddies and lonely dinners with only crinkling tin foil and sighs for company, he sparks a warm kinship over the summer with his new temporary neighbors – especially the shy Cody, who struggles with the loud kids his own age to the point of puking under pressure and bonds better with Del’s old soul, slow pace and simple pleasures. 

It’s a familiar set-up – an old grump forms an unexpected friendship with a precocious tyke, with life lessons for both along the way – so much so I kept waiting for "Driveways" to become That Indie Movie. I nervously awaited for Del to be a grouchy cliché, for Cody to play as a cutesy fiction and for the script to turn to cloying quirk in the name of a hook or for some manufactured melodrama to draw clouds over Ahn’s comfortable summer day of a film. 

I’m happy to report, though, that all that anxious waiting was for nothing.

Save for a brief poem that’s a little too pat and some wrestle-maniacs next door that play a little broad compared to everything else, Ahn – along with debut feature screenwriters Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, deserving of their Independent Spirit nominations this past awards season – rarely make a misstep with their characters. These sorts of slice-of-life coming-of-age stories are seemingly simple but tricky to pull off, trying to be specific and universal at the same time, balancing the mundane with the meaningful, and creating character and drama without overplaying one’s hand. "Driveways" pulls it all off, though, with leads and emotions that all feel real, like our characters all had lives before and after the camera just happened to begin rolling, capturing their gentle but giant summer emotional breakthroughs.

Ahn’s warmly observant direction tells the audience so much without words needed, even from just the first few minutes of the mother and son silently trekking across the country, with Cody so shy he’s intimidated into looking away from profane bathroom graffiti and Kathy too exhausted to stamp out her cigarette – though Cody’s there to do it for her. As "Driveways" continues on, so does Ahn’s approach with these gentle character moments. Later on, for instance, he follows Kathy on a late-night detour to the bar to cure a spat of loneliness – a scene that doesn’t any significant impact on the plot and that most movies would cut as inessential, but here makes her character even more rich, defined and human. 

Whether significant or tiny, funny or serious, he lets these scenes breathe and lets the relationships play out with mellow ease, not forcing them into contrived meet-cutes or forced whimsy. Kathy, Cody and Del have a modestly rocky start – a quickly settled misunderstanding about a hose – but otherwise the film is content to sit back and watch them grow a friendship in little interactions, trusting their performers and the simple act of people being kind, bonding together and slowly learning about each other is entertaining and informative enough. Even the piles of stuff hoarded into mountains throughout the Kathy’s sister’s house aren’t some cliché indie preciousness: It’s just stuff, not a cute or comedic visual but a dusty, towering and sad reminder of how little she knew about her own kin before it was too late. 

All of this makes "Driveways" sound like a seemingly slight movie but Ahn, Bos and Thureen make its small story rich with humanity and kindly drawn character – even Robin Payne’s bit part as a helpful real estate agent. The bonds are built together with such care and consideration, and the characters revealed with such heartfelt delicacy, that when drama threatens to break out – a birthday party for Cody, a visit from Del’s distant daughter – it feels substantial and almost tense without the film having to strain itself to go big. And when "Driveways" adds all those moments up, the result feels like those hazy summer days where, by the end, young or old, you’re no longer living the same life you were at the start, a bittersweet change that’s already happened before you could even realize it’d begun and the time had passed. (That once-forgettable title ends up as a perfect metaphor: an unassuming place of transition, guiding a person to and from a path or place.)

Along the way, the cast brings all of these nuanced and heartwarming moments beats to life. Hong Chau is lovely as Kathy – quietly tender, tough and brittle all at once as she tries raising her peculiar son as best as she can under her clearly tight circumstances as a single mother. She gets some of the more charming and funny moments in the film – a simple conversation in a car where she’s clearly thrilled to be speaking to an adult, a quick beer order at the VFW – just by her smart delivery. There’s always something deeper going on with her character, though, far beyond the dialogue – whether parsing through her sister’s wreckage of a house, finally cracking a bit realizing the embarrassing scale of her cleaning job, her late-night detour to the bar or the quiet pauses during a car ride with Del, trying to carefully pry details about a sister she barely knew by the end. She’s often played scene-stealer off to the side in movies good ("Inherent Vice") and significantly less good ("Downsizing"); after "Driveways," she deserves to steal more scenes as a lead. 

As her son, young Lucas Jaye is excellent as well, pulling off that tough child performance tightrope act of seeming older and more restrained for his age while also still seemingly like a kid. 

Then there’s Brian Dennehy, a familiar and beloved presence on both the stage and screen who passed away in April and delivers a touching performance here, his seemingly gruff exterior revealing a gentle kindness and brief glimpses of an aging man realizing how lost and alone he’s become, whether sitting alone for dinner or guiding his Alzheimer’s-stricken friend back to the grocery store. It’s mostly a sweet, subdued performance until the final few scenes, which give Dennehy essentially an extended monologue. The speech threatens to be one of the rare moments in "Driveways" that borders on being a bit overwrought, but Dennehy’s delivery is so felt, so earned over 80 minutes of quiet shift and so painfully poignant to reality – confessing the mistakes he’s made, thinking back on his life and the moments that seemed just too quick, that passed by too fast – that it works, ending the film on a beautifully wistful note. 

Though Dennehy has a few more movies technically left in production, due to the size of his role and its proximity to his passing, "Driveways" will likely be remembered as his final bow. It'd be easy to disregard "Driveways" as merely a fortunate product of unfortunate timing, to call it good and moving before pushing it aside as simply some future trivia factoid. (Just ask Harry Dean Stanton's winsome swan song "Lucky.") But Andrew Ahn's film is great and memorable, no qualifiers needed – a gem of small kindnesses and tender humanity.

Learn from my mistake from last fall: Don’t underestimate "Driveways."

"Driveways": ***1/2 out of ****

"Driveways" is currently available on Milwaukee Film's Sofa Cinema virtual movie platform.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.