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.
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