The great Brian Dennehy, who died last month at the age of eighty-one, often boomed and thundered with the best of them. A broad-shouldered bear of a man, he could — when the situation called for it — bring an explosive intensity to his roles. (In a film like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, Dennehy took his few moments in the otherwise ethereal film and hit the entire movie with a spinning, long-lasting impact.) But he often did just as great, if not better, work in a minor register: Watching him sit there and think, or even just be, was electric in its own right. It’s that Brian Dennehy that we get in Andrew Ahn’s Driveways, a delicate film that works on the viewer in sly, mysterious ways. Dennehy plays Del, the reserved Korean War veteran and widower living next door to a house that single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) have just pulled into. The two aren’t exactly moving in, however: Kathy has come to clear out her older, recently deceased sister Alice’s home, but upon entering the house, Kathy realizes that Alice, from whom she was estranged, was a hoarder, and a neighborhood enigma who kept her distance from everyone else. Which means that Kathy and Cody will have to stay in the house (or really, in the enclosed porch, since the house itself is currently uninhabitable) for a while.
At first, the relationship between Kathy, Cody, and Del is tense — few words are spoken, and the headstrong Kathy is very protective of her sensitive son. Ahn brings an understated style that doesn’t try to lead the viewer or to underline the emotions in the film. We may or may not worry, upon seeing Del’s Korean War-veteran hat and his initially terse demeanor, that he might view these newcomers with suspicion; of course, that might also be why Kathy initially views him with suspicion. But that’s not the case: the quiet old man next door is just quiet and old. At nights he eats dinner by himself, saying nothing, just casually staring into space, the film adopting the lonely rhythms of his existence. Watching Brian Dennehy eat is like staring at a big, wholesome novel; you can tell there’s a whole universe in there, but you also know that it would take some effort to understand it. Del and Cody strike up a friendship, but it’s a shy one, befitting their styles. There are no real-life lessons being learned, other than the most important one, which is to be kind and let people be themselves. The title seemingly is referring itself as a metaphor for the elusive human connections we make before we go into our own little worlds, the interiors of which others rarely see.
At the same time, while Driveways is hardly the first movie about the gradually developing bond between a gruff older man and a cute, precocious kid, it’s too delicate and sure-footed to be reduced to a formulaic description. (So no, this isn’t the indie version of Pixar’s Up or Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.) The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, aren’t afraid to use a little comedy to nudge their story along, whether it’s a bout of stress vomiting or a raucous bingo night. But much of Driveways lingers in a less emphatic register of feeling, in that rueful gray zone between humor and sorrow.
Also, there aren’t any real plot points in Driveways, either; instead, there are elements that could become plot points in a different, probably lesser work. Del likes to spend his days at the local VFW with a small group of fellow veterans; one of them has clearly begun to suffer from some sort of dementia, but the film doesn’t dwell on this potentially tragic thread. Del is accepting of his friend’s lapses, and so is the movie — as if to say, This is just what happens sometimes. Kathy’s ex-husband makes a remote appearance via a brief phone call, and we learn very little of their relationship; again, this could have become a whole thing, but it’s to the film’s credit that is doesn’t. Similarly, Kathy’s realization that she never truly knew her sister — and that she never truly will — lingers there, like one of those thoughts you never know what to do with. With his nonexistent embellishment, Ahn displays his deft gift for expressive restraint, using it to tease out hidden depths of emotion that his characters are too shy or reserved to convey.
For someone you brought such incredible force with hard-hitting monologues, there isn’t a hint of overt speechifying in Driveways, but Dennehy’s Del does get a short, sweet monologue in which he reflects on his life: about his military days, his decades-long marriage, his blessings and failures as a husband and father. Yet it doesn’t come with the big, loud Dennehy power; in its delicate ways it hits valleys of emotion that reach deeper than any yell or scream could rattle or crush. It’s also fair to say that it’s nothing that even Cody can directly relate to just yet, but in summing up a lifetime’s worth of joys and regrets, Del can’t help but pierce the air between them. Driveways, a movie that’s poignant now for reasons we doubtless wish it weren’t, shows us how unlikely people can come together under imperfect circumstances and fit together perfectly. It also shows us how fleeting that perfection can be. Anchored in the poignant, knockout swan song performance of Brian Dennehy, Driveways is an empathetic film of profound gentleness and human decency; a film on the little, shattering details of everyone’s invaluable journey.