Firstpost at Tribeca: Spa Night director Andrew Ahn's Driveways offers a heartfelt, comforting vision of America

Siddhant Adlakha

May 06, 2019 10:00:28 IST

(The Tribeca Film Festival 2019 runs from 24 April to 5 May. Firstpost will be posting movie reviews from the independent film festival held in New York City.)

I love Andrew Ahn’s America — rather, I love the vision of America he creates. Spa Night, the Korean-American filmmaker’s understated debut, was as much a tale of closeted struggle as it was a vivid exploration of first-gen Asian American youth. The importance of that latter aspect, however is heavily context dependent. In a decade or two, the detailed way in which his characters interact might seem run-of-the-mill (that is my hope, anyway), once storytellers of different backgrounds have more say in cinema, and once stories that now seem racially revolutionary begin to feel normal. Ahn does not direct sci-fi, but his films feel like they are beamed to us from the future. They offer unapologetic glimpses into under-explored facets of American life, which he treats with the mundaneness of a white suburban family saying grace before dinner. For instance, both in Spa Night and in Ahn’s coming-out short Dol (First Birthday), the Korean doljanchi ceremony is a setting the way a blow-out-the-candles birthday party might be, but it is never the cental focus.

Firstpost at Tribeca: Spa Night director Andrew Ahns Driveways offers a heartfelt, comforting vision of America

A still from Driveways. Twitter

Driveways may not strictly be “about” race or queerness, but it undoubtedly weaves these lived experiences into its fabric. They are allowed to simply be, and yet they inform the specific ways in which the film tugs on your heartstrings. At its core, Driveways is about loss — medical transcriber and single mother Kathy (Hong Chau) takes her son Cody (Lucas Jaye) to clean out her departed sister April’s messy home. They form an unlikely bond with April’s neighbor, elderly widower Del (Brian Dennehy) — though the story simmers with unspoken tensions it feels no need to address.

Kathy, Cody and April are not given a specific ethnic or cultural origin, other than the assimilated “Asian American.” Writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen did not write the characters as East Asian, but Ahn’s decision to cast them as such adds innumerable layers to the story. Del, a white war veteran, sports his “Korea” hat to the local VFW, where other white soldiers wear their own “Vietnam” and “World War II” logos like badges of pride, wars in which Asian peoples were the victims of violence abroad, and propaganda at home. It is never explicitly addressed, but it speaks to the awkward place Americans like Kathy and Cody might have in the US. The premise ends up being a microcosm for this dynamic. Kathy and Cody are outsiders to the small town in New York State, where April lived. The welcoming white grandmother across the street makes this known, albeit unintentionally, when she prefaces her disdain for the local Mexican families with “Not to be racist, but…” and even the local children assume Cody reads Japanese Manga. Innocent, yet loaded.

None of it is a big deal, per se. It is merely the fine brush with which Ahn paints his characters. If anything, his approach is subtle enough that viewers who have not experienced racism might miss its underlying discomforts entirely. Whereas for the rest of the audience (and for Kathy, who is just barely keeping her head above water), it is yet another thing to deal with on top of having to grieve.

Cody, a curious gay nine-year-old, is textured with a similar deftness. Ahn speaks in a code familiar to him as a gay man; Cody does not get along with the neighboring wrestling fans, and is unnerved by their rowdiness. Kathy off-handedly refers to Cody as “sensitive” and Dell even says Cody reminds him of his daughter, though he does so with a tinge of regret (later in the film, Dell mentions his daughter is engaged to a woman). While Cody steals glances at effeminate men in the manga he is introduced to, he is never made to fear for consequences. Ahn’s America is difficult — there is no easy path for Kathy to reconcile her estrangement from the late April, or for Dell to regain lost time with his wife — but his America is ultimately kind. The neighbors, despite their shortcomings and racial blinders, offer Kathy a helping hand, one she sorely needs when dismantling the mountains of hoarded knick-knacks in April’s home.

In Driveways, grief arrives in the form of inexplicable, filthy piles one needs to wade through, and deal with over several months, before moving on. Ahn and Spa Night cinematographer Ki Jin Kim refine their already proficient visual palette, painting the NY suburb with a warm afterglow. Ahn lets his performers breathe in the space around them, in cautious medium shots, while reserving his close-ups for the more heartrending moment — whether realisations of regret, or comforting wisdom passed down. Actors Chau, Jaye and Dennehy are tasked with having a million things on their minds at once (Chau’s Kathy and Dennehy’s Dell are shackled by regret, while Jaye’s Cody tries to figure out the future) and they skillfully scale the emotional walls they are forced to erect, as the characters cut through their respective animosities in order to find mutual kindness.  

In Ahn’s America, outsider experiences of race and sexuality are treated as mundane norms, while the mundane activities of suburban normalcy become their own eccentric journeys. A trip to the supermarket is an opportunity to accept mortality. The library is a place you can read the news and see what your estranged kids have been up to. A yard sale is a chance to grieve. A garbage dumpster is a place where you discard old memories, while cleaning is an activity where you make new ones. And driveways are places where you strike up contentious introductions with strangers, who eventually become people with whom you sit on your front-porche, and reflect on both past and future — driveways lead you home.

Updated Date: May 07, 2019 17:37:12 IST

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