An elderly man sits on his front steps, talking to a young boy. He’s speaking of his late wife and wondering where the time has gone — how 50 years went by when he wasn’t paying attention, and how little one’s life really boils down to. “We got married, we moved into this house, we had our daughter. And that’s the story,” he says, with the awful realization that everything else was everything he missed.
The man’s name is Del — a Korean War veteran living in upstate New York — and he’s played by Brian Dennehy in one of that great, gruff actor’s final performances. Dennehy had completed two more films before dying, at 81, on April 15, but “Driveways” is coming out on streaming platforms closest to his passing and it is the one to raise a glass to and maybe shed a tear over.
Del’s not the focus of ”Driveways” ―he just lives next door and slowly assumes critical importance to Kathy (Hong Chau) and her 8-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye). The two have arrived in town from Michigan – the film was shot in and around Poughkeepsie – to close down the house of April, a much older sister who Kathy barely knew. She certainly didn’t realize April was a hoarder, up to and including a dead cat in the bathtub.
The film, written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and directed by Andrew Ahn, is in a vein of small-town realism, attentive to the pace and details of an unhurried neighborhood. Some might find it dull. Others may notice a simple decency to this story and these people that somehow eludes sentimentality and that, with the aid of Jay Wadley’s evocative score, has a cumulative power that can be intensely moving.
The mother is loving, with a hard crust; she’s a medical transcriber who wants to be a nurse and you sense she’s always been good at keeping a few steps ahead of disaster. The son is smart and sensitive — Kathy calls him “the professor” — who doesn’t have much in common with the WWE-obsessed siblings down the road. He’s an old soul and naturally drawn to the old man next door. A friendship blooms, one that coaxes Kathy out of her shell as well, and the novelty is that it’s founded on kindness and mutual respect. There’s not much more to “Driveways,” but, goodness, isn’t that enough?
Chau was the discovery of Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” (2017) — a fine performance in a misshapen movie — and is adept at suggesting a soft hand in a weathered glove. Jaye is very good as Cody. But both actors know they’re sharing the screen with an unassuming giant. Dennehy was many things to many audiences over the course of a half century of performances: a valued supporting player in commercial blockbusters (“First Blood,” “Cocoon”), costar of the 1995 Chris Farley comedy “Tommy Boy” (which, God help us, most of the online obituaries led with). Most notably, he won Tony Awards for imbuing two classic figures of American theater — Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — with the dominating physicality of the college football player and ex-Marine he was and a knowledge of failure that came from long observation of the human animal.
Dennehy was a big man with a gentle touch, and “Driveways” uses that to sometimes heartbreaking effect. There’s a running bit with one of Del’s VFW bingo buddies, Rodger (Jerry Adler), whose slow slide into senility is filling Del with concern and fear over his own future. We sense his friendship with this boy and his spiky single mom stems in part from a desire to not repeat past mistakes. Late in the film, on the porch with Cody, those regrets and more finally spill out with the halting force of a man unused to handling delicate objects. It’s a jewel of a scene, one last gift to audiences from an actor of contradictions and grace.
And that’s the story.
Directed by Andrew Ahn. Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. Starring Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye, Brian Dennehy. Streaming on various platforms starting May 7. 83 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, brief language)