Imagine a pregnant teenage girl in a small town in the 1960s, with abortion an impossible, unknown option. She struggles with missing the normal high-school experience, with early marriage to a boy she doesn't know well. She's too young, but she somehow learns how to parent, and the love she feels for her son makes all the difference in the world. She ends up a more mature, fuller person and achieves her career dreams through an unorthodox path.
It's a touching tale. Unfortunately, it's not the story of Riding in Cars With Boys.
Director Penny Marshall tends toward the sentimental, but most of her films at least have a plot arc and some form of character development. This one has neither. It's a poorly acted, unmotivated mess, with awkward editing and unbelievable dialogue.
As a preteen, Beverly D'Onofrio (Drew Barrymore) is a self-centered, boy-crazy bundle of energy. She horrifies her dad by requesting a bra for her birthday -- he was planning to give her a bicycle. Soon enough, she's pregnant at 15 and married to her shiftless boyfriend, working in a fast-food restaurant instead of going to the high-school prom with her friends.
Here we get stuck. Writer Morgan Ward never creates a consistent character for Beverly. If she's so hung up on winning the perfect guy, why does she date and sleep with Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn), whom she looks down on? And while she's chasing her dream guy, we're supposed to believe she's a bookish poet with a chance at a serious writing career? On top of this, Ward writes stiff dialogue for children and drops inappropriate jokes into serious scenes.
Even the usually winsome Barrymore can't make Beverly a sympathetic character. Her best friend Fay Forrester (Brittany Murphy) claims Beverly "has a light around her," but the only Beverly we see is a selfish shrew. We keep expecting her to accept the motherhood that's been thrust on her - and she has a couple of near-epiphanies - but she continues to view her child as an annoyance, which the poor tyke absorbs.
Indeed, the most touching moments in the film are between Ray and his son Jason, despite Zahn's mumbling delivery. Fay is a loving friend and certainly a better mom than Beverly, and would've made a much more interesting central character. Murphy brings her to life in the film's only decent performance.
The film's structure has some beauty, told as a retrospective with son Jason (Adam Garcia) as narrator. It's certainly ambitious to tell Beverly's story over 20 years, as she herself did in book form. Herein lies the problem - tougher editing and more developed characters would have helped the core of the story shine through.