Easy rider

Film - Philip Kerr on what really goes on in the back seats of cars

Forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote, in his now seminal work Understanding Media, that the car had become "the carapace, the protective shell, for urban and suburban man". But for most men of my generation, a car was always more than just the hard shell of solipsistic monism. A car represented freedom; and not merely the freedom to go wherever one wanted, but sexual freedom, too. Probably the reason why men are so keen on cars is that, for many who owned one during their teenage years, there is a Freudian association between cars and early sexual experience. It may even be that there is a close relation between car-ownership among Britain's scrofulous teenagers and the high rate of teenage pregnancy - Britain has more cars and more unwanted teenage pregnancies than almost any other country in Europe.

It was never that easy having sexual intercourse in a British car and, speaking for myself, I never quite managed it, despite my very worst intentions. As a teenager, I drove an MG Midget, and you can take my word for it, full intercourse is impossible in one of those, at least with the hood up. American cars were a different matter, with back seats as large as the Groucho Club. American cars may look vulgar, guzzle gas and take corners like a fruit jelly, but they were made for love.

I mention all of this because of the title and premise of Penny Marshall's latest film, Riding in Cars with Boys. It's the true story of Beverly Ann Donofrio (Drew Barrymore), who comes of age in the late Sixties, and whose entire life is coloured by an event that happens when she is just 15 years old. "One day can make your life," she tells her friend, "one day can ruin your life. All life is four or five big days that change everything."

Well, in poor Beverly's case, it's perhaps not so long as a day that changes her life, more like 20 minutes in the back seat of an old Chevy Impala. For, having endured humiliating rejection by the boy on whom she has a crush, Bev turns her precocious attentions to Ray Hasek (Steve Zahn), a dim-witted, if good-natured, 18-year-old drop-out who seems very much taken with her. Bev goes for a ride in Ray's car. And because no one has told Bev that, in Moses Herzog's phrase, "fellatio is the path to truth and honour", she gets pregnant. Now, Herzog was just being rude about an American judge, but it seems to me that Saul Bellow's epigram might just as easily have provided a whole generation of women with some very useful family planning advice.

In an effort to please her parents - especially her father (James Woods), a cop from Connecticut and a hard-ass, borderline Humbert Humbert, who seems to have mistaken Philip Larkin's verse for something he read in Benjamin Spock - Bev turns her back on a promising high-school career and marries the no-hoper Ray. What follows is a poignant, bitter-sweet comedy about Bev's struggle to bring up her son and keep her family together without entirely giving up on her ambition to go to college. Six years into the marriage, however, she discovers that Ray is not just the king of wastreldom, and a near-imbecile, but a heroin addict as well. Despite her best efforts to wean him off the junk, the relationship dissolves and Ray disappears from her life. Bev is suddenly a 21-year-old single mother, with a six-year-old son and the kind of career opportunities that don't so much knock on her plywood door as kick her in the teeth.

Drew Barrymore, whose own travails with drink and drugs are well known, gives the performance of her young life. But it is Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) as Ray who deserves most praise. As a loving father tragically aware of his own shortcomings, both intellectual and moral, he delivers a wonderfully crafted performance that is at once repellent and sympathetic. Surprisingly, Marshall never gives in to the mawkish sentimentality that marred some of her recent films - Awakenings and The Preacher's Wife - and this is her best work since Big.

Based on Beverly Donofrio's own book, this is a good film that all young people should see - not just teenage girls, but also the horny young men for whom responsibility is just a word on a cloakroom disclaimer in a nightclub. Had my car been bigger, it could so easily have been me.

Riding in Cars with Boys (15) is on general release from 7 December

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?