Last seen kicking butt in "Charlie's Angels", Drew Barrymore takes a massive gamble with her new project, which requires her not only to age 20 years, but also be the mother of an 18-year-old son. Those with fond memories of her performance in "E.T." will find it hard to swallow Drew as a 35-year-old mom, but you have to give her credit for trying. In fact, this is unquestionably her most credible dramatic turn to date.
Based on Beverly D'Onofrio's autobiography, Penny Marshall's movie introduces its heroine as a boy-crazy bobbysoxer who, after one night of passion with local dropout Ray (Zahn), finds herself pregnant. Abandoning her dreams of college, Bev reluctantly becomes a housewife - only to discover that, after six years of marriage, her husband is a heroin addict.
"Riding in Cars with Boys" could easily have become a sentimental tale of one woman's struggle against adversity and eventual victory over the odds. But it's far less straightforward than that, with Bev's triumph coming at the expense of her relationship with her neglected son (played as an embittered adult by Adam Garcia, in reality Drew's senior by two years).
James Woods and Rosie Perez contribute excellent cameos - as Bev's disapproving father and Ray's shrewish second wife, respectively - and Barrymore gives it all she's got. In the end, though, the film belongs to Zahn, who turns his two-dimensional slacker character into a truly heartbreaking portrait of disillusion and guilt. Don't be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination for his troubles.