Most schools of psychology emphasize the significance of examining the past. As a systems therapist, I try to help therapy clients discover how past family dynamics shape current life experience. Rather than harping on the past, which no one finds particularly useful, we reflect on what a client’s life was like growing up to develop insights about who they are today. So learning about a client’s childhood helps me to know them better as an adult and allows me to do a better job as their therapist.

In addition to asking about parents, grandparents and siblings, I also inquire about role models and mentors. It is fascinating how many times an unexpected adult plays an essential role in a person’s development. Mentors are especially meaningful to children raised by single parents, and some take on a psychological significance that is life-shaping.

Director Andrew Ahn’s quiet film Driveways celebrates the transformational role a non-familial adult can play in during a child’s formative years. The film delicately explores grief, loss, longing and absence. But it is also about finding parental love and protection in unexpected places, like rickety front porches, bingo halls, and deserted suburban driveways.

Eight year old Cody (Lucas Jaye) arrives in an unassuming New York suburb with his mother Kathy (Hong Chau). Their mission is to clean out the home of Cody’s recently deceased Aunt April. We soon learn that April was a recluse and a hoarder who fell out of touch with Kathy and most of the outside world. The dead cat in April’s bathtub is one of many unpleasant discoveries left behind, highlighting April’s loss and isolation. We also learn that Cody’s father is not around much and that Cody is anxious and sensitive and shy. The process of cleaning out April’s home to prepare it for sale turns out to be much more work than expected. Unfortunately, the house is not habitable and finances are tight, so Cody and his mother camp out on the porch for the bulk of the film, as they sort through piles of April’s hoarded belongings and sort them in her yard and on her driveway.

Across the driveway sits Del (Brian Dennehy, in one of his final performances), a widower and retired Korean war veteran who slowly strikes up a bond with Cody that frames the film’s understated plot. Kathy is wary of Del in the beginning and has raised Cody to avoid strangers. Any responsible single mother would take this approach. And yet Del becomes less of a stranger and more of a neighbor, cultivating a bond with Cody that is part surrogate grandfather and part friend. The psychological distance between them creates an entryway for Del to become the father figure Cody craves. Their relationship also frames an opportunity for Del to succeed with Cody where he failed with his own daughter when she was young and he was too busy. So the corrective emotional nature of the paring is mutual.

Driveways is exceedingly subtle but its understated plot intersperses memorable scenes that punctuate Cody’s formative experience. Cody, Kathy and Del’s shared journey demonstrates how grief can be an opportunity for growth and how deep connection can form in the most surprising places.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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