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By Michael Dequina | October 19, 2001

Over the span of 20 years, a young woman is presented with a number of life obstacles and not only perseveres, but triumphs. If this sounds like the makings of one of those late-in-the-year, gimme-an-Oscar-or-at-the-very-least-a-nomination vehicles developed for a major Hollywood star, you wouldn’t be mistaken. The project in question is “Riding in Cars with Boys”; the star is Drew Barrymore; and there’s no chance in hell you’ll hear about this one on that early February morning when Academy Award nods are announced.
Penny Marshall directed this screen version of Beverly Donofrio’s memoir, and its main character’s mentality and evolution can actually be summed up by the theme song of Marshall’s major claim to fame, the classic sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.”
“Give us any chance we’ll take it/Leave us any rule we’ll break it/We’re gonna make our dreams come true/Doing it our way.” Barrymore’s Bev is a high schooler in 1960s Connecticut with big dreams of attending NYU and becoming a writer. The “rules” for such success don’t include getting pregnant at age 15–but that’s exactly what happens to Bev by the slacker Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn). Such a seeming setback doesn’t faze this dreamer, however, and she accepts the hand she’s dealt and vows to soldier on in own her style…
“Nothing’s gonna turn us back now/Straight ahead and on the track now/We’re gonna make our dreams come true/Doing it our way.” Bev, at the behest of her strict father (James Woods), marries the ever-irresponsible Ray. The arrival of son Jason doesn’t make the Hasek household happy, but armed with her high school equivalency, SAT scores that are implied to be solid, and a killer entrance essay, Bev seems to be right on course to university, on a scholarship, no less. Alas…
“There is nothing we won’t try/Never heard the word ‘impossible’/This time there’s no stopping us/We’re gonna do it.” An old high school chum (Peter Facinelli) makes a dramatic suggestion to 20something Bev: that she and her family move to California and pursue her academic aspirations there. Bev decides to give it a shot; Ray agrees to it; plans are made. Alas…
“On your mark, get set, and go now/Got a dream–yes, we just know now/We’re gonna make our dreams come true.” After much arguing and various other troubles, Ray disappears from the picture (in every sense), and a liberated Bev finally appears poised at the starting line for the sprint to success. But there’s the little matter of a son that needs to be taken care of…
“And we’ll do it our way/Yes, our way/Making our dreams come true/For me and you.” At age 35, Bev is poised to have her memoirs published, and her now-20-year-old son (a miscast Adam Garcia, looking every bit older than Barrymore as he is in real life) is a university student himself. Bev appears to have made everything come together for herself _and_ Jason. (Or has she?)
Barrymore (and the rest of the cast, which includes a memorable Brittany Murphy as Bev’s best friend Fay) does a creditable job navigating the alternately serious and comic turns of Morgan Upton Ward’s script, but there’s only so much that can be done with such a single-minded character. Barrymore’s innate likability can go a long way, but it can’t instantly make a fairly one-note character interesting. Donofrio’s book is subtitled “Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Made Good,” but there’s little hint of that “badness” aside from her teenage pregnancy, and even then she’s given an air of nobility in how she holds on to her dreams in the face of such a challenge.
Even worse, Marshall and Ward drive home Bev’s ambitions without following through on delivering a satisfactory payoff. The structure, where various remembrances are interspersed with the 1980s Bev and Jason taking a long road trip, allows a convenient way for the filmmakers to skip around to only key passages in Bev’s life, but shouldn’t have someone realized that one of the lost sections was the realization of one of Bev’s most important aspirations: her entire university experience? Getting a book published may have been one of her goals, but the focus had clearly been placed on college.
Ultimately, the main question is if Beverly Donofrio’s life story seem like one worth telling. Perhaps her writing style makes it one worth reading about, but whatever distinguished “Riding in Cars with Boys” the book certainly doesn’t show up in the movie, which turns her life into a rather stock inspirational story of personal empowerment.

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