A little over a year after his father's death, Doug (RJ Mitte) is as closed off from the world as ever. Diagnosed with non-degenerative muscular dystrophy at birth, Doug is wheelchair-bound and needs a ride to and from school, where his interactions are mostly limited to arranging study sessions with his secret crush, Stephanie (Paloma Kwiatkowski). At home, he hides in his room, away from his busybody mother (Daphne Zuniga), who occupies her time with anything but dealing with her husband's passing. When Doug's driver quits to follow her boyfriend's band on a tour, Doug meets Scott (Ray William Johnson), who is nice but clearly drifting and lacking in ambition. After only a single day, Scott convinces Doug and Stephanie to accompany him on a trip to Las Vegas to meet an unidentified friend, bringing Doug far out of his comfort zone and into uncharted emotional territory.
Written by Michael Carnick, who himself suffers from muscular dystrophy, Who's Driving Doug is a film that struggles to transform specific experiences into a more general story. It's clear from the finished film that Carnick had a drive and determination to tell a story about a person living a similar lifestyle; what's less clear is whether or not he had a particular passion for the story he chose to convey those ideas through. Key moments that relate to how a person with Doug's condition reacts to the world around him or behaves socially are often effective, but the rest of the film's plot and story can feel contrived, familiar, and even one-sided.
The film's best material relates to Doug's introversion. When Scott pulls over at a diner en route to Las Vegas and a waitress seems unable to regard Doug as a human being, Scott forces Doug to confront the fact that Doug secretly likes being treated differently, because it's a win-win situation for him: either he gets preferential treatment because of his condition, or he gets to feel sorry for himself that someone won't take him seriously, another excuse to continue living his life in the closed-off way he already is. Another sequence, in which Scott pays an escort to take Doug's virginity, could easily be contrived: either the sequence is played for laughs, or it prompts an emotional outburst. Instead, the film takes a more sensitive route, with "Elation" (Shanti Lowry) demonstrating a surprising amount of tenderness and compassion. Mitte, whose own disability, cerebral palsy, has been treated by years of therapy, is excellent in terms of both playing the character and embodying an authentic depiction of his character's illness.
However, in what feels like some sort of weird fitting reflection of the struggle of disabled folks to lead normal lives, the hackiest aspects of the film could easily have come out of any movie about a teenager on a wild road trip, including the secret reasons Scott has for wanting to go to Vegas in the first place, and Doug's unrequited crush on Stephanie. Despite Doug's condition, he's not entitled to any more sympathy for treating Stephanie's desire to sleep with other people who aren't Doug as something she's doing wrong, nor is the dramatic journey of the film any more effective by obscuring Scott's motives until nearly the end of the movie, like a big twist. Zuniga, meanwhile, spends most of her scenes alone at home, speaking to the vase that holds her husband's ashes. She's good, but it feels less connected to the way she treats Doug than Carnick or director David Michael Conley likely intend it to.
The one successful element of the film that is likely created from whole cloth is the character of Scott and his relationship with Doug. Scott's shiftiness occasional laziness are never an easy fallback for the confrontations he has with Doug, and his desire to show Doug a good time is never essentially a plot device that creates conflict artificially. The two guys form a strong friendship that might have sustained the movie even without the Stephanie character, who is stuck serving that functional purpose at almost every opportunity. The final scene between Scott and Doug is one of the film's few legitimately surprising moments, where the movie breaks out of its own constraints and lets the characters take over.
Who's Driving Doug gets a simple cover, a screenshot of the scene where Scott presents Doug with an escort, in a white border with teal text. The back cover is equally simple, plain black font on a white backdrop with a few pictures from the film. To call it a design would probably be stretching the definition. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray Case (no holes, less plastic), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, this disc is the very definition of adequate. The film mostly looks good, with acceptable levels of color and detail for a modern film, excepting the occasional instance of faint compression artifacts, middling contrast, or hints of compression along edges and straight lines. The sound, mostly consisting of dialogue and the Death Cab for Cutie songs that make up the soundtrack, is sharp and easy to understand, if not particularly extravagant. The one disappointment is no English subtitles, although if you have the ability, the disc does offer closed captioning through your television.
None, other than an original theatrical trailer. No autoplay trailers before the main menu.
Who's Driving Doug is never fully good, merely good enough. Strong performances and bits of dramatic insight raise the overall value of a frequently mediocre story. The adequate DVD Kino Lorber has created feels fitting. Rent it.
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