Helen Hunt’s second writing-directing-starring effort (after 2007’s “Then She Found Me”) is a mother-son story that’s occasionally funny and sometimes poignant—but almost never emotionally real. “Ride” attempts to say something meaningful about a woman finally coming to terms with the tragedy that’s overshadowed her life when faced with the necessity of giving her child the freedom he desperately wants. But its two central characters are so archly written and their dialogue so incessantly literary that little of what they say and do comes across as genuine even at the level of contrived dramedy.
The picture opens in New York City, where Jackie (Hunt), a fiction editor at the New Yorker, is working hard to get her eighteen-year old son Angelo (Brenton Thwaites), of whom—as a flashback to when he was a toddler shows, she’s extraordinarily protective—into NYU, which is right down the street from their apartment. An acerbic, extremely self-confident person, Jackie is hard on the story that Angelo, an aspiring writer, is working on, and isn’t particularly happy that the lad is going to be away from her for the summer, staying with his father Peter (Robert Knepper) and his new family in sunny California. A true helicopter mom, she tries to keep tabs on her son constantly by phone and text, and is horrified when she learns that he’s decided to drop—or at least postpone—his college plans to devote himself to writing and his new passion, surfing.
It takes little time for Jackie to jump on a plane and make her way to the West Coast, where she hires an accommodating limo driver named Ramon (David Zayas) first to follow Angelo, after the boy discovers what she’s doing and stormily confronts her over her meddling, helping her accomplish what she deems necessary—learning to surf so that she can prove to her son that she can understand what he sees in the experience (and, perhaps, to show him that she can even be better at it than he can). After a few unhappy attempts to get into the water on her own, believing she’s capable to doing everything by herself, she falls in with an easygoing, likable fellow named Ian (Luke Wilson), who offers to give her lessons. Naturally before long their relationship will proceed beyond the teacher-student level to something more personal. Meanwhile Angelo will undergo an epiphany of sorts himself, when he discerns that the beach bum he’s come to admire for his freewheeling lifestyle as both surfer and writer isn’t quite the role model he’d naively assumed.
The dramatic trajectory of “Ride” is pretty predictable—uptight mom learns to loosen up, even giving up her job to pursue a new dream, while callow son learns that his naïve dream of following a dream without much thought has a distinct downside—and it’s not strengthened by the highly artificial characters Hunt has created and the theatrically overripe dialogue she’s put into their mouths and the situations she’s created. Jackie is such a controlling, pompous person, constantly correcting others on their grammar and historical knowledge in tones that call to mind a hectoring schoolmistress, that she comes across more as a literary contrivance than a living, breathing human being, even though Hunt invests all her energy into the role. (The reason behind Jackie’s obsessive concern for her son is eventually revealed, but it turns out to be remarkably obvious and even saccharine.) Angelo, by contrast, is written as a rather shallow, obstinate adolescent whose petulant outbursts are more likely to evoke sighs of exasperation than nods of agreement, even from one who sees his mother as a smothering force, and Thwaites, though a handsome young man, can’t do much to make him more likable.
Nor is Hunt terribly effective in setting up important moments in the picture. The sequence in which Angelo discovers that his mother is following him in California is insufferably cute and sitcomish, while another in which Jackie comes to Peter’s hillside house and makes a scene goes the melodramatic route. In both cases, and some others as well, one senses Hunt fumbling for something—whether lightness or depth—that she doesn’t manage to achieve.
On the other hand, one can admire the cinematography of the Jas Shelton (aided in the water sequences by the late Sonny Miller), who brings a touch of class to the New York scenes and a luminous look to the California beach sequences. The numerous episodes featuring Hunt struggling in the wave and falling from her board—in which the actress looks to have embraced the physical challenges with abandon—are especially convincing. One can also appreciate the low-key charm of Wilson, whose nonchalance is sort of antidote to all the high-strung drama occurring around him, and of Zayas (whom you may remember from his stellar work as a regular on “Dexter,” and who proves himself adept in the art of the double-take). The rest of the cast fulfill their responsibilities well enough, though without great distinction, and the other technical contributions—from William Yeh’s slick editing to Julian Wass’ pleasant but unobtrusive score—are fine.
“Ride,” it should be emphasized, isn’t unpleasant , but it does end up feeling synthetic—the work of a filmmaker who’s simply trying too hard.