Road movies in which young people learn life lessons are hardly thin on the ground, but “Who’s Driving Doug” adds a twist to the formula because the young man for whom the trip represents a personal epiphany is a victim of muscular dystrophy and confined to a wheelchair. Given the other clichéd aspects of the film, his condition isn’t sufficient to set the story completely apart from others of the tired genre, but at least gives it a bit of distinction.
RJ Mitte (from “Breaking Bad”) stars as Doug, who’s fussed over by his widowed mother (Daphne Zuniga) and finds his college writing class rather unsatisfying as a mode of expression. About his only fulfillment comes from the friendship of classmate Stephanie (Paloma Kwiatkowski), though he obviously wishes they were closer. Things hardly improve when his driver, a squinty-eyed girl, abruptly quits.
He quickly finds a replacement in Scott (Ray William Johnson), a fast-talking underachiever who’s just been refused admission to the college. And after just a couple of days, Scott suggests a trip to Las Vegas—something Doug’s always wanted to try, despite his mother’s misgivings. But since Stephanie agrees to tag along, she reluctantly allows it.
What follows is a fairly predictable series of episodes in which, under Scott’s insistent hectoring, Doug ventures out of his shell. Alcohol helps him loosen up, of course, and so does a session with one of those good-hearted prostitutes who exist mostly in fiction. Sessions spent gambling in the casino also bring out Doug’s more extrovert side. Of course, inevitably things deteriorate among the travelling trio, with Doug becoming jealous over the closeness that develops between Sean and Stephanie. The film closes on an increasingly melodramatic note, with scenes in a hospital, complete with the intervention of Doug’s mother and a coincidence that finally reveals the reason behind Sean’s original determination to get back to Las Vegas. A coda brings an even more impassioned confrontation between Doug and Sean on the road back home, followed by a classroom scene that points up the impact the journey has had on Doug.
The direction by David Michael Conley and cinematography by Tom Clancey aren’t terribly imaginative, and their film has little visual energy. But the cast work hard to overcome those limitations, as well as the script’s missteps. The women fare less well, with Zuniga unable to overcome the stereotypical elements in Carnick’s portrait of a helicopter mom, and Kwiatkowski a mite bland. But Mitte and Johnson (the latter looking strikingly like Jesse Bradford) are both strong. Mitte, of course, is himself disabled, so that while he doesn’t suffer from MD he shares with Doug an acute understanding of the feeling of isolation such a condition can bring and conveys it honestly. Johnson, a relative newcomer, does an impressive job of expressing Sean’s many moods, and his scenes prodding Doug to take chances to expand his horizons ring true.
“Who’s Driving Doug” is the sort of small film one is likely to encounter on the festival circuit rather than in regular release, but though it doesn’t entirely escape the aura of being a much more serious variant of a formula discernible even in a lighthearted romp like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the lead performances in particular give it a degree of emotional depth.