Source: Focus Features

Review: Lesbian Road-Trip Caper 'Drive-Away Dolls' Runs Out of Gas

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 3 MIN.

"Drive-Away Dolls" is a stylized lesbian road-trip comedy and crime caper fixated on sex (that all makes it sound extremely enticing). You're either on board with regarding its audacious flair and style, or you're not. While I appreciate facets of the film, unfortunately, as a whole, it just didn't work for me.

"Drive-Away Dolls" is directed by Ethan Coen and written by Coen and Tricia Cooke, a lesbian editor and writer. In an interview with "MovieMaker," Cooke spoke about the making of the film, as well as her marriage to Coen and her sexual orientation. While always boasting superb casts, the Coen Brothers films can be hit or miss for me. Yet I adore "Inside Llewyn Davis" and enjoy "No Country for Old Men."

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan star as the titular women (the long-gestating film was originally titled "Drive-Away Dykes"). Set in 1990s Philadelphia, free-spirited Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and reserved Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are lesbians and best friends. When Jamie's girlfriend, rage-filled police officer Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, who's queer), breaks up with her and kicks her out of their home, Jamie decides to tag along with Marian on a road trip to Tallahassee, Florida to visit Marian's relative.

Jamie procures them a drive-away car for the trip, where they pick up a vehicle and transport it to another destination. Along the way, they make various pit stops at lesbian bars. Unbeknownst to them, the trunk holds a dead body and a valuable briefcase, spurring a couple of bickering criminals to follow in desperate pursuit.

Geraldine Viswanathan is always great; she's engaging and compelling. Margaret Qualley regularly appears in good films, yet her performances always feel flat and artificial, lacking authenticity and complexity. To her credit, she utilizes more physicality in her "Drive-Away Dolls" role (and in the film "Sanctuary"), imbuing her character Jamie with swagger and an effortless comfort. Yet, her facial expressions and line delivery still feel caricaturish.

I was ecstatic to watch Pedro Pascal and Colman Domingo (who's gay), both excellent, riveting, versatile, magnetic actors. While they make the most of their cameos, the film sadly wastes them.

Coen Brothers' films are known for their striking visuals. Ari Wegner ("The Power of the Dog," "Zola"), one of my favorite directors of photography, shot the film's visceral cinematography. The film's gory opening scene enticed my horror-loving heart: Death by corkscrew and eye-gouging, an allusion to Pedro Pascal's spectacular role as Oberyn Martell in "Game of Thrones." Strange psychedelic, hallucinatory scenes weave throughout, contributing to an often weird and perplexing experience.

Brimming with an absurdist tone and bawdy humor, the film depicts various lesbian bars based on actual lesbian bars (nice to see considering the current dearth of lesbian bars), speed-dating-style queer make-out sessions, and numerous jokes about dildos (wall-mounted dildos, highly coveted dildos from notorious people, etc.).

Despite the humor and caper romp, the jokes fell flat for me (although, I did laugh out loud regarding a punchline with Jamie and Marian declaring they're Democrats). Most egregiously, I found it disturbingly played for laughs when Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) punches Jamie's face after discovering her infidelity, tainting the rest of the movie. Domestic violence is not a joke. I expect better in a queer film, especially considering intimate partner violence happens in queer couples too.

While friends often date, including or particularly in queer communities, I didn't find the eventual attraction and relationship between talkative, sexually voracious Jamie and shy, deadpan Marian, believable. Their chemistry feels platonic at best. While opposites often attract, it didn't always feel that they even liked each other, let alone were friends. Considering the film hinges on their rapport, the framework crumbles.

I feel like a bad queer woman for not liking "Drive-Away Dolls." I truly hope it finds its audience, which I think it will. I want to applaud its queer themes and bold style. I love that a queer woman co-wrote the film with queer actors in the cast. But for me, it was often an unpleasant watch. I just kept wishing I could drive off into another movie.

"Drive-Away Dolls" opens in theaters Friday, February 23, 2024.

by Megan Kearns

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