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Drive-Away Dolls Review: The Ultimate Road Trip Flick

Margaret Qually and Geraldine Viswanathan open a car boot in Drive-Away Dolls

Drive-Away Dolls is the ultimate road trip flick where not much happens, yet its energy is enough to keep you engaged for the complete runtime.

In terms of directing duos, there may not be a more recognizable one than the Coen Brothers. Their combined minds have brought us modern classics like the thrilling No Country for Old Men or the Western dramedy The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Both filmmakers work well off each other, creating characters and stories that resonate with moviegoers. As successful as the Coens are as a duo, Joel Coen has had the opportunity to demonstrate his talent as a solo director with The Tragedy of Macbeth. A dynamic, refreshing, and visually impressive endeavor. And now it is Ethan Coen’s turn to deliver a feature film by himself with Drive-Away Dolls.

In 1999, Jamie (Margaret Qualley, Sanctuary) is going through another breakup with her now ex-girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart), while her demure friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, Bad Education) desperately needs to loosen up. Both friends decide to go on a sudden road trip to Tallahassee in hopes of a fresh start. But because life can never be too simple, Jamie and Marian cross paths with a group of inept criminals along the way, interrupting their vacation and putting their friendship into question if it could develop into something more.

Co-screenwriter Tricia Cooke has described Drive-Away Dolls in past interviews as an unserious, trashy B-movie. Like the ones you’d see in the 1960s and 70s, only this time it is starring two lesbian protagonists. Frankly, there is no better way to sum up what Drive-Away Dolls is. The film doesn’t have any sense of urgency on a character or narrative level, but it doesn’t require it. Ethan Coen’s execution plays as a series of vignettes due to the screenplay’s silly nature, which allows scenes to breathe and performers to make the most out of the material.

Margaret Qualley gave what I believe to be a highly underappreciated performance in 2023 with her work in Sanctuary. In the erotic thriller, Qualley shows off immense charisma and the ability to command the screen. That is no different in Drive-Away Dolls. While Jamie can come across as selfish and immature, you can never quite get mad at her, which is why Qualley’s pairing with Geraldine Viswanathan is so magical. They get to bring to life two extreme opposites of the spectrum – an extrovert who’s very comfortable with her sexuality and an introvert who follows the rules and is way too worried about everything around her.

Geraldine Viswanathan as "Marian", Margaret Qualley as "Jamie" and Beanie Feldstein as "Sukie" stand in front of rainbow-lit windows in Drive-Away Dolls
(L to R) Geraldine Viswanathan as “Marian”, Margaret Qualley as “Jamie” and Beanie Feldstein as “Sukie” in director Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls (Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features)

The dynamic that unfolds is sweet and relatable when Jamie and Marian are contended with the possibility that they might be the perfect match. Coen and Cooke don’t make the mistake of treating the relationship as profound and dramatic. Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t stop dead in its tracks to point out that it is telling a queer story. It simply is by leaning on the silliness of falling in love and simultaneously getting in trouble through the road trip and coming-of-age tropes we all have come to appreciate.

Qualley and Viswanathan do a magnificent job of selling the world that Coen and Cooke created, just as the rest of the ensemble does. Beanie Feldstein is hilarious to watch as the constantly angry ex-girlfriend. Joey Slotnick (Plane) and C.J. Wilson (Manchester by the Sea), as the pair of criminals chasing after Jamie and Marian, get to have their road trip that is somehow as charming as our protagonists’ journey. Pedro Pascal (Strange Way of Life), Matt Damon (Air), and Miley Cyrus (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) aren’t in the movie for long, but they make the most out of their brief moments. Colman Domingo continues his streak of deeply hypnotizing roles, even if it often feels like the film doesn’t give him much to take advantage of Domingo’s talent.

From a technical standpoint, Ari Wegner deserves as much credit for Drive-Away Dolls’ tone as Coen and Cooke do. Her photography is colorful and lively but in a way that seems cheap at first glance. I mean that as a compliment since, ultimately, that is the kind of look the filmmakers were aiming for, considering the project’s B-movie influences. That same praise goes for Wegner as much as it goes for the production and art departments.

Drive-Away Dolls is a fever dream of a movie. The type of dream you need to adjust to, but once you do, you’ll want to spend more time on it. Tricia Cooke’s editing merits praise for this, as her work in the editing room helps fit all of these silly, unserious pieces together. Ethan Coen delivers a charming road trip flick filled with wonder, sex, and oddities. If Drive-Away Dolls have anything to leave audiences with, sometimes you must loosen up and not take life too seriously. After so many artists made us reflect on our humanity in 2023, I think this is a perfect message to start the new year.

Drive-Away Dolls was released in US theaters on February 23, 2024 and is now available to rent and own on digital. The film will be out in UK and Irish cinemas on March 15.

Drive-Away Dolls: Trailer (Focus Features)
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