Local Heroes

"Driveways" (2020) is on-demand soul food just waiting for you to find it; "Dog" and "Strawberry Mansion" arrive in theaters

Local Heroes

The Nut Graf1: It’s New Release Friday, but I feel like sharing a two-year-old gem: “Driveways” (2020, available for rent on multiple platforms, ***1/2 stars out of ****), with its fine farewell performance by Brian Dennehy. Dog lovers are directed (with reservations) to “Dog” (in theaters, **1/2 stars out of ****), and fans of inspired gonzo should check out "“Strawberry Mansion” (in theaters, **1/2 stars out of ****).

Brian Dennehy and Lucas Jaye in “Driveways”

How are your neighbors doing? Have you checked on them lately? I ask because I was reminded the other day (thanks, Alissa Wilkinson) of “Driveways,” one of the best, if least heralded movies of 2020, and one that’s very much about the common splendors that can come from opening your door to the people across the way. It’s available for rent on multiple VOD platforms, and it’s about as soul satisfying as movies get.

I hope you have friendly relations with your neighbors, or at least tactful diplomacy; I certainly hope you’re not at war like in that old Norman McLaren Oscar-winning short they made us watch in fifth grade. (You never saw it? Here it is.) My own neighbors are great, I’m happy to say. I live on the corner of a main road and a cul-de-sac, at the end of which live a semi-retired jazz drummer and his wife, a nurse – lovely folks, and role models for any couples waltzing gently into their later years. (Also, it’s nice that if I want to go down a rabbit hole of trivia about mid-20th century pop vocalists, Bob’s just across the street. Thanks for the Mark Murphy tip, Bob.)

Up from them are a plainspoken genius of a furniture restorer and his wife, a jewelry designer whose energy could power the QE2, whose laugh you can hear from two streets over, and whose license plate reads WOODSTOCK, because she was there, dammit. They and a handful of others up and down the block have created a vibrant sense of belonging that drew my wife and me in as soon as we arrived some years back – a community within a community, a village inside a city inside a state inside a country inside the world. Neighbors can be a fractal of much larger human interaction, for better and, yes, sometimes for worse (I refer you again to that McLaren short).

Hong Chau in “Driveways”

“Driveways” tells of a single mother and her young son who move into the house of a recently deceased relative in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and become friends with the old man next door. The old man is played by Brian Dennehy in one of that great actor’s final roles before his death in May 2020; as his first posthumous release, it’s a fitting memorial. Playing the mother, Kathy, is Hong Chau, who came to moviegoers’ attention as the best thing in a mixed bag of a movie (2017’s “Downsizing,” for which she was Oscar nominated). A young actor named Lucas Jaye plays the son, Cody, who’s bookish and a little eccentric, but not in an annoying movie-kid way. He just doesn’t know what to say to the other neighborhood kids, who talk mostly about their favorite pro wrestling moves.

Written by Hannah Bos and Pal Thureen and directed by Andrew Ahn, “Driveways” is a simple enough story, yet in that simplicity it conveys complexities of the human heart. Kathy is a good mother but a tough nut who we sense has become skilled at staying one step ahead of hard times; in my Globe review, I said that the actress was adept at suggesting a soft hand in a weathered glove, and I stand by that. Kathy’s initially wary of her son’s friendship with Del, the gruff widower played by Dennehy, but she responds to the way Cody responds to him, and the film dramatizes her thawing without ever sentimentalizing it. Neither she nor Del are very good at “other people.” The house belonged to a much older sister Kathy barely knew, and it’s a hoarder’s hellhole that hints at a lonely and isolated existence. Del sees the end of his own road coming into view – his best friend (Jerry Adler) down at the VFW hall is losing himself to dementia and there’s a daughter in Seattle who wants Del to come west and check into assisted living. “Driveways” is about people who are too busy living to talk or even think much about their lives, and it’s about how friendship creates a space for them to do that.

Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye, and Brian Dennehy in “Driveways”

The movie’s climax is almost absurdly quiet – just a monologue from the old man to the boy as they sit on Del’s front steps, about how fast the years have gone and how little one’s days ultimately boil down to. Speaking of his dead wife, Del says “We got married, we moved into this house, we had our daughter. And that’s the story,” and in the pause between the two sentences is his realization that everything else was everything he missed. It would be easy and tempting for an actor to sell the moment hard, but Dennehy lets regret and acceptance just float there on top of the words, knowing that the boy will understand the message being passed along. See it. Appreciate it. Live it. It’s a performance of perfect clarity, given by a lion at sunset, and for a moment it makes this tiny movie fill the horizon. Invite your neighbors over and give it a go.

Dog-lovers (of which I am one) should know that “Dog,” which arrives in theaters today, is rough sledding in some places, and not always the way the filmmakers intend. Spoiler alert, because I know this is important to a lot of you: The dog does not die. No “Marley and Me” tragedies here to stomp your tender heart to kibble. But this road movie about a traumatized Army Ranger (Channing Tatum, above) transporting a traumatized “multi-purpose canine” – a dog trained for combat missions – to a platoon mate’s funeral may rise and fall on how you feel about animals being used for war. If you’re okay with that, “Dog” will play as a sometimes funny, sometimes moving story of two damaged beings traveling across an America that isn’t really willing to welcome them home. If you feel, say, that humans get to choose to go to war but animals don’t, don’t expect the flashbacks to violent clashes with the Taliban or a scene in which the dog’s training causes her to attack an American Muslim in traditional dress to sit comfortably. Tatum, as expected, brings depth and detail to a less than nuanced part, and the three Belgian Malinoises playing Lulu are gorgeous and, thankfully, not anthropomorphized with too many cutesy reaction shots. Dogs is dogs in this movie, and no matter where you come down on the K9 issue, there’s a scene toward the end that will probably wreck you.

If you have a taste for inspired weirdness and live anywhere near an arthouse showing “Strawberry Mansion,” you may want to give this puckish, no-budget sci-fi comedy a try. It’s set a half century or so in the future, when consumer capitalism has extended into our brains: Machines on our bedside tables scan our nightly dreams so that the government can tax the contents. Co-director Kentucker Audley plays a fedora-wearing “dream auditor” who arrives at a cluttered country castle, where the aged owner (Broadway legend Penny Fuller) has decades of her dreams stored on tape. Conspiracies, a love story, a giant frog waiter played by the film’s other director Albert Birney, and a couple of mice in sailor pinafores are some of the ingredients in this engaging/exhausting movie’s stew, which suggests a home-cooked variant on Michel Gondry with an extra-strength shot of Terry Gilliam. The invention flags about two-thirds of the way in, but when it’s really cooking, “Strawberry Mansion” is a stalwart entry in the Cinema du Edibles, and it marks Audley and Birney as a duo to keep an eye on. Watch the trailer and you’ll know if you’re in or you’re out.

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