Helen Hunt’s Ride Film Review
There aren’t enough opportunities for actresses at Helen Hunt’s age. By Hollywood’s standard, she’s old, too old to play anyone apart from mothers, aunts and grandmothers. It’s refreshing then to see her as the romantic lead in Ride, a film she wrote and directed herself. She plays Jackie, a lifelong New Yorker working in publishing who pursues her aspiring writer son Angelo (Brenton Thwaites) to LA when she hears he’s dropping out of school to become a surfer. There she meets and falls for Ian (Luke Wilson) after he agrees to teach her how to surf to impress her son. We’re inundated with films about middle-aged men creeping on young women (not least in films by Woody Allen – the 54-year-old Colin Firth paired up with 26-year old Emma Stone in Magic in the Moonlight for example); it’s nice that here the imbalance is flipped and, a few jokes aside, it’s never a big deal.
While Ride is easy to like in theory, it’s not as strong in execution. Jackie and her son trade overlapping barbed witticisms like a ’40s screwball comedy, but without the cleverness or humour of those films. What’s worse is that twice in the first few scenes the dialogue is shot and edited in such a way that the screen direction, the way the characters are looking, flips. This is disorientating and amateur – it’s literally the first thing you learn in film school. Jackie’s text conversations with her son are read out in flat voice-over, rather than integrated into the frame the way many TV shows and films are doing, à la Sherlock. After one such conversation, Jackie googles “sexual inactivity” then clicks a drop-down menu labelled “number of years”, selecting 5. Such is the level of subtlety at play here.
The target of the humour keeps switching. Is it Jackie, the New York intellectual who doesn’t know how to drive, hires a limo to take her around LA and thinks that surfing is so easy she can master it in an afternoon? Or is it Angelo, who rejects criticism of his work along with academia and just wants to hang out surfing all the time? It can be both, but not really both simultaneously. A lot of Jackie’s behaviour is indefensible, stalker-ish, and yet the music and tone imply it’s all just a lark. Hunt does herself a disservice, writing her character so cold and unlikeable initially that winning back sympathy from the audience is an uphill battle. There’s a reveal that goes some way to explaining her strange behaviour, but naturally it arrives right at the end.
The tragicomic scene where the truth does come out, when Angelo confronts his mother over her behaviour, is actually touching and very well done, showing a restraint that’s lacking elsewhere. Other moments also speak to Hunt’s promise as a writer-director, even if that promise hasn’t been entirely fulfilled with this film. Hunt and Wilson have such an easy chemistry and Wilson is so charming that it’s not until long after the film ends does it dawn on you that we really know nothing about his character. Their surfing scenes are some of the best in the film, and the water photography is alternatively lively and serene, doing a good job of convincing Jackie and us of why people enjoy the sport in the first place. There’s an idea there, about balancing intellectual knowledge with real-world experience, and seeking that experience outside your comfort zone, that occasionally shines through despite the scattershot nature of the film.