Jumping off of critical acclaim and into arthouse theaters around the country, is one of the audience favorites from the Mill Valley Film Festival’s World Cinema category in 2021- “Drive My Car” by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. This deeply felt, observant film is adapted from a short story in Murakami Haruki’s “Men Without Women”collection. Two years after the sudden death of his wife, actor-director, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who has been understandably inactive, lonely and depressed, is requested to direct a production of “Uncle Vanya” for an annual theater festival in Hiroshima. After driving there in his vintage Saab, he is told that it is mandatory he be chauffeured in his car. Although he is initially resistant to turn over his keys of his beloved car to Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), the young female driver assigned to him, he eventually relents after acknowledging that she is undeniably an excellent driver and a kind and respectful companion.
Throughout the play’s audition process and rehearsals, Yusuke and the film’s audience, get to know the play’s unusual ensemble, which includes Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young, handsome TV star, with limited experience and range that Yusuke oddly cast in the lead role usually reserved for middle-aged actors like himself. No one is more surprised and daunted by the casting than the young actor who was selected. Was this a set-up for failure? Given that it is revealed (to the audience) that the director recognizes Koji as having had some sort of romantic connection to Yusuke’s late wife, his motivations are suspect.
Over the course of the several weeks production, tensions rise among cast, director and producers. While relations in the rehearsal studio are sometimes fraught, conversely, a friendly, almost father-daughter type bond develops between Yusuke and his shy and quiet driver. She has become a bit of a respite to Yusuke’s theatrical challenges and emotional hauntings from the loss of his wife. During a spontaneous road trip the two take to Koji’s home village she left several years ago while also fleeing her own set of emotional demons, Yusuke is forced to reckon with painful truths about he and his wife’s relationship, and his future emotional well being. His accepting the director’s position, along with the unlikely pairing of Yusuke with Koji as friend and driver, proves to be exactly what he needed to launch him on a path of actual recovery.
“Drive My Car” is a slow moving and wonderful story, beautifully observed and executed, with love, loss and life at its core. The two lead performances are pitch perfect, along with a commendable and entertaining supporting cast. While the movie is about 30 to 40 minutes longer than necessary, it is wholly engaging and worth experiencing in your local arthouse theater or on streaming platforms.