Arts & Culture

Movie Review: Drive Away Dolls

Think early Coen Brothers, but make it queer.

Many years ago, I did an interview with a lesbian filmmaker who said she couldn’t wait for the day that there were actual options for queer cinema, a time when she could say, “Yeah, I’m not feeling this queer film but that other one playing in the theater next door is right up my alley.”

With Drive Away Dolls, we are inching toward that reality.

This is a genre film—a genre that the Coen brothers invented, mind you: a weird, glancingly surreal caper film filled with larger-than-life characters, droll humor, and a cheerfully B-movie aesthetic. But in this case, it’s very, very gay.

Now normally, I would be suspicious of a man helming a wacky lesbian road trip/crime caper. But the man in this case is genius filmmaker Ethan Coen, who briefly (one hopes) is working without his brother, Joel. Instead, his partner in the film is co-writer Tricia Cooke and I have to give the woman her props. While this film is very raunchy (or sex positive as the kids say today) and features the undeniably stunning Margaret Qualley as a free-spirited lesbian with a thick Southern drawl and a libido as large as her sense of adventure, it doesn’t seem to be ruled by the male gaze. It feels very much like a film made by queer people for queer people (and those who love them).

Here’s the premise: Qualley’s Jamie has been kicked out of the house by her enraged cop girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein, very funny) for cheating one too many times. Jamie ends up tagging along with her friend, the somewhat sad sack Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) who is secretly nursing a crush on Jamie, on a road trip to Tallahassee. A mix up at the car rental shop, run by the deadpan Curlie (Bill Camp), gives them the wrong car, the one intended for a couple of bagmen who have been hired to deliver packages to The Chief (Colman Domingo).

For most of the film, the two friends are blissfully unaware of their contraband, and happily go about hitting fleabag motels, lesbian bars, and girls’ soccer team sleepovers where everyone makes out. Meanwhile, they’re being ineptly tailed by the two goons (Joey Slotnik and C.J. Wilson), who bicker like an old married couple.

Once the girls open the trunk and find out what’s inside (in a million years, you’ll never guess), more shenanigans ensue. Somehow, Matt Damon also joins the action as a compromised Senator and—is that Miley Cyrus in those psychedelic flashbacks?

Drive Away Dolls is fun and silly, a perfectly diverting way to spend 90 minutes—and the three lead actresses are a blast to watch. That said, I couldn’t help but feel like this was ersatz Coen Brothers. The bickering between the bagmen feels a bit forced, as does Jamie’s motto that she randomly spray paints on the rental car: Love is a sleigh ride to hell. Those surrealist flashbacks seem more show-offy than useful. If someone had told me Drive Away Dolls had been directed by a talented young filmmaker who had grown up on a steady diet of Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and Fargo, I would’ve believed them. Still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—even when you’re imitating yourself.