Like the life of its subject matter, there is a lot that is wrong with this movie, but there is also something right enough for a bittersweet happy ending.
Drew Barrymore stars in the true story of Beverly Donofrio, whose dreams of going to NYU and becoming a writer seemed impossible when she became pregnant at age 15. Beverly was the daughter of a policeman (James Woods) and a homemaker (Lorraine Bracco). When she became pregnant by a sweet but irresponsible drop-out (Steve Zahn as Ray), her parents insisted that they get married. They spent the next seven years on welfare. As the movie begins, Beverly has written her life story. She and her son, now in college, have a wintery journey of reconciliation as they seek out Ray to get him to sign a release so that the book can be published. The story alternates between that snowy car ride and flashbacks to the past that led up to it.
The commercials for this movie make it look like an up-beat story with a lot of cute sit-com-y moments, but it is not. Bev is not a good mother. She is so angry at Ray, her son Jason, and her parents that her behavior is often selfish and bitter. If an actress less irresistible than Barrymore were in the role, we would stop caring whether she ever got to college. The script makes some odd choices in showing us too many scenes of Bev’s despair and nothing about what she did that finally pulled her life together. Jason’s romantic involvement seems to tie up too many loose ends to be authentic. Director Penny Marshall bangs too hard on the cultural signifiers of each era Bev lives through. Her music choices are uncharacteristically pedestrian, with nothing that hasn’t been used dozens of times before. I hereby propose punishment of a week in movie-maker prison for the next person who puts “I Feel Good” in a movie. It is the most over-used song in movie history.
But the movie gets four stars just for Barrymore’s performance as she shows us Bev at 15, 20, and 35. Zahn, always a marvelous actor in comedy or drama, gives a performance of great generosity and heart. There are also great moments from Brittany Murphy, as Bev’s friend Fay, and Woods as Bev’s dad.
Parents should know that the movie has non-explicit teenage sex and pregnancy. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs, including use of a hallucinogenic drug while watching a child and heroin addiction. A character sells drugs, and Bev and Fay briefly become involved in helping him. There is a painful scene of withdrawal. All of this is presented in a realistic manner with realistic consequences that should help teenagers understand the seriousness of this behavior. There is also some strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about how families support members who have made bad choices and the importance of accepting responsibility for your mistakes. What did Bev’s family do wrong? What did they do right? Why was she able to achieve her dream? What did Jason do to make her see things differently? What do you think about Ray’s comment that the best thing he could do for Jason was to leave him?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Diner (some mature material).