In the sensitive, suburbia-set indie “Driveways,” a single mother drags her 8-year-old son cross-country to empty out the house of her packrat older sister, newly deceased. It’s a chore for her, but an opportunity for the kid to do a bit of growing up, courtesy of the Korean War veteran living next door. At first, the old fella watches the newcomers with suspicion, debating whether to help or to go all Clint-Eastwood-in-“Gran Torino” on them and growl, “Get off my lawn!” But in time, the initially standoffish man reaches out in a gesture of neighborly goodwill, revealing “Driveways” to be that uncommon and all-too-welcome gift — like some kind of fragile wildflower, emerging tentatively through cracks in the concrete: a film about kindness.
Of course, there are other themes at play, including small but affecting insights into the immigrant experience and single motherhood, but it’s the bond connecting reclusive retiree Del (played by Brian Dennehy) and young Cody (newcomer Lucas Jaye, always convincing, never cutesy) that resonates most in a film so subtle, audiences may miss the subtext of the final conversation between these two characters — withheld until the end of this review, out of sensitivity to spoilers.
Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, “Driveways” was penned under the assumption that white people would play the key roles, but Korean-American director Andrew Ahn — whose promising debut, “Spa Night,” grappled with the cultural and sexual dimensions of his identity — opted to cast the mother and son with Asian-American actors. That decision makes all the difference, adding an element of specificity to this gentle yet otherwise somewhat generic cross-generational friendship.
Even apart from that decision, Ahn and DP Ki Jin Kim are observant and detail-oriented filmmakers, capturing the little things that transport audiences back to their own childhood: Cody eating funnel-shaped Bugles chips off his fingertips, studying the lawn at ground level the way only kids seem to do, obediently fussing over his mother’s discarded cigarette butts. At first, Cody’s mom, Kathy (“Downsizing” discovery Hong Chau), comes across as stern and remote to the other adults, including a white neighbor named Linda who begins sentences with “Not being racist, but …” before doing exactly that. But as the film unfolds, we see how much Kathy cares for her son, whom she calls “Professor,” standing up to his dad by phone or transcribing medical reports for cash.
The film is told mostly from Cody’s point of view, as the young man finds old-school ways to entertain himself: getting bullied into wrestling matches with the aggro kids down the street, learning about manga comics from the local geeks, and chatting with Del on his front porch. Cody owns an iPad Mini (or similar device), but he doesn’t seem as tethered to it as other kids his age. At one point, he plans a birthday party at the local roller-skating rink (how many of those still exist?), only to abandon that for a bingo match with Del at the VFW hall after none of the other kids his age shows up.
Although “Driveways” doesn’t offer much in the way of dramatic excitement, it rewards those willing to adjust to its low-key, laid-back rhythms, suggested by editor Katharine McQuerrey’s laconic pacing and Jay Wadley’s omnipresent piano-and-strings score, which takes its cue from French composer Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies.” The cinematography looks a little grubby, but that’s part of the movie’s lo-fi charm — a throwback to the early days of Sundance (where Ahn’s first film screened, whereas this one debuted in the Berlinale’s youth-focused Generation program).
Cody may be the main character, but Ahn occasionally breaks from his relatively naive perspective to focus on the adults alone, as when Kathy goes out to the local bar by herself one night, or during a scene where Del goes shopping with a fellow veteran (Jerry Adler) and realizes that his friend, who appears to be suffering from dementia, has wandered off. In privileging Cody’s experience, the movie offers a relaxed and rather nostalgic view of small-town life through his eyes, but some of the things that happen seem to go over his head, indicated so discreetly that audiences could miss them, too.
Which brings us to the spoiler — if that’s the right word for a revelation that may actually enrich audiences’ understanding of a film. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that “Driveways” is tonally similar but dramatically the opposite of Michael Cuesta’s exceptional coming-of-age movie “L.I.E.”: Here, the older gentleman is not a sexual predator but the first person to affirm a “sensitive” kid years before the boy will understand what makes him different. Del has a strained relationship with his own daughter, who is a lesbian, and in Cody he sees a second chance to act as he should have toward her — and just in time, since “Driveways” creates a reason why the special connection between Del and Cody won’t last forever.
Your mileage may vary, of course. Personally speaking, I don’t cry often at the movies. By the end of that scene on Del’s porch, however, I was weeping, not from sadness but from the recognition of what their conversation signifies. It’s far too easy to coax tears via contrived tragedy, whereas “Driveways” earned my reaction by establishing a credible friendship between these two characters — one of whom, it should be said, even if the film never addresses the fact, was sent overseas to kill Koreans — and capping it off with a moment of sincere, shared humanity.