Imagine, for a moment, that you were forced into an extended confinement. Are you lonely or relieved? Now, instead of being on your own, you were given company. Do you feel more comfortable or more anxious? Finally, what if the person you’re confined with is a stranger? Take however you feel about that and you’ll have the emotional foundation for writer/director Richard Summers-Calvert’s second feature Drive Me to the End. Over the course of three days, Summer-Calvert’s Ryan travels to a funeral in Scotland, for a deceased relative, except what was supposed to be a quiet trip grows complicated when a passenger, Kate Lister’s Sunny, is sprung on him just as he leaves. With nothing but time on their hands, these two strangers end up revealing unspoken truths about themselves that change their lives forever.
Drive Me to the End is a frequently cute and strangely charming dramedy about the power of communication and that what we think we know is often very little and that listening is the best solution to the majority of problems. In a strange way, Summer-Calvert’s Drive Me is like an elongated version of the Cori Doerrfeld children’s book The Rabbit Listened. Used as a means of edutainment to teach empathy and communication skills to children, the book tells the story of a child whose building project is destroyed and the variety of ways animals try to help the child cope. (Forgive the digression, the point is coming.) Animal after animal tries to force the child to react by alternatingly encouraging rage, laughter, sadness, forgetting, overcoming, and rebuilding, until, that is, a rabbit appears and who just slowly edges closer to the child while waiting for the child to speak. It’s a story about how the passive action of listening can empower someone to communicate. Over the three day journey in Drive Me to the End, Ryan learns that his proactive care approach that works for his terminally sick mother Louisa (Tracey Wilkinson) doesn’t work in other situations. This is a profoundly positive message amid some silly humor and a downright blunt narrative thread tied to Sunny that we could use more of right now. Everyone’s so eager to look like an expert that they’ll fall on their face giving a monologue of nonsense before being corrected. Unlike these kind of conversations, Ryan is shown taking the time to listen, to adjust, and to grow.
There is an issue here, even if it is well-meaning. Often, Ryan’s presumptions of information or how people function is not only wrong, but insulting. It’s because of this last bit that parts of Drive Me become difficult to watch, because it’s clear that Ryan’s heart is in the right place, but his education by way of others’ experiences and ideas hues closely to one of the oldest tropes in cinema, the Disabled Love Interest/Savior, by way of Lister’s Sunny, who is autistic, and Simon (David Bower),who is a deaf hitchhiker, and his terminal mother. Summer-Calvert presents Ryan as wholesome and innocuous from the start, so Ryan’s missteps are by-and-large forgivable, supporting the larger theme of communication. What works in Drive Me’s favor is that the film makes sure to flesh Sunny out fully, making it clear, against all stereotypes, that she possesses agency which is the larger reason for her going on this trip with Ryan separate from her parents and is the greatest saving grace for the film. Lister, herself, is a strong scene partner for Summer-Calvert and is, quite honestly, his secret weapon. Evidently, the actor spent time with Carla Burn of The I Can Network to learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in order to present Sunny as accurately as possible. The accuracy of the performance is hard to decipher given the difference in depiction here versus other cinematic presentations, as well as the limited context offered within the film itself; however, it’s refreshing that never once does the audience feel sorry for Sunny. Lister gives her a strength that’s present from the start and which carries through until the end.
Summer-Calvert is a true multi-hyphenate on this project. He serves as the writer and director, but also as producer and lead actor. If one were to look at the film from that perspective, one would wrongly assume that Drive Me is a vanity project, built up to make him look good. Truth be told, the character of Ryan is clearly complex, yet doesn’t really get the same opportunity for depth as Lister’s Sunny. This leads the audience to know the obvious things and struggle with internal catalyst of the character. For instance, Ryan is leaving his mother Louisa behind for the duration of the trip, an act, which Summer-Calvert communicates via a subtle performance, is both a terror and a relief. As the sole caregiver, this offers an interesting conflict that’s teased for the majority of the film. Unfortunately, when the truth is just starting to come out, it’s abruptly ended for a reason which is rather unclear. Instead of spending some time on this, which would have better served Ryan’s journey through the film, the conversation is suddenly and unexpectedly cut-off. It would be far more satisfying to see Ryan get closure by actually saying something valuable and true, especially since Drive Me uses Ryan’s supposed ignorance as a conduit for enlightenment by using him as a means of instigating the audience’s potential questions or comedy to lighten the mood by making him the butt of jokes.
When it’s all said and done, Drive Me to the End is a sweet story of two strangers learning that they aren’t so alone in the world. It’s messy, it’s complicated, and it’s bound to stir up some conversations. This is a good thing. Open communication is the film’s end goal message, and if it gets people talking about ASD, cinematic tropes, terminal illness, and more, all’s the better. It’s hard not to bring baggage to everything you do, especially cinema. In this case, try to let it go and let Summer-Calvert drive you all the way to end.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning June 16th, 2020 via Amazon.
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video in September 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.