In Riding in Cars With Boys, Drew Barrymore plays Beverly Donofrio, a 1960s teenager in a working-class Connecticut town whose unplanned pregnancy at the age of 15 becomes the defining event of her hard-knock life. Derailed from her dream of moving to New York City to become a writer, Bev quits school, marries her baby's dropout father, Ray (Steve Zahn), and spends the next 20 years squawking in an accent borrowed from Tony Soprano's therapist Dr. Melfi about her messed-up plans. (Lorraine Bracco keeps that Melfi accent handy, like a hankie, as Bev's mother.) Ray becomes a junkie, and Bev kicks him out. Her son, Jason, becomes a kid, a normal, attention- demanding little kid whose deepest wish is for his mommy to be happy, and she screams at him. The story shuttles between 1986, when Bev is riding in a car with her now-grown boy, Jason, and all the years and miles leading up to that redemptive road trip.
Eventually, of course, Beverly does become a writer -- as did the real Donofrio, whose sassy 1990 memoir is the basis of this fussed-over drama.
As a headstrong, narcissistic, self-confessed imperfect mother with no basic instinct for the job, Bev is a great character. And Barrymore's got a special empathy for girls who are handfuls, infusing every role she plays with her own rebellious-but-sweet, wild-card–on–''Late Show'' energy. Director Penny Marshall, though, regularly downshifts the anger in ''Riding in Cars'' to low-gear cute every time the road gets good and tough. Which is to say, every scene is bumpered with actorly business and production detail that says more about nostalgia for the pop culture of earlier American decades than about the hard socioeconomic truths of being a poor, young, undereducated parent.
From the moment the story opens, in a flashback to when Bev was a sexually precocious little girl, gliding through the snow at Christmastime with her local-cop daddy (James Woods) in his police cruiser while singing along to the Everly Brothers, Marshall and screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward nervously insist on sweetening the atmosphere. At Bev and Ray's shotgun wedding, the potent misery of the pink-gowned bride, all but ignored by her shamed father, is quickly dispelled by the Hallmark-card toast from her spunky best friend (Brittany Murphy). At Bev and Ray's house, moments of tension between the two adults are relaxed by the antics of their son, particularly as played by Cody Arens, who is encouraged by a director in search of ''awwww'' to grin and mug and all but click his heels and yodel.
In contrast, Australian-born Adam Garcia plays the 20-year-old Jason with a thoughtful combination of fortitude and simmering resentment, to which Barrymore responds with the exciting near-bitchiness the role of Beverly really needs. When Barrymore finally gets mean, the movie finally gets good. Then comes another sing-along, dammit, when you may want to slam the car door and walk home.