Directed by Penny Marshall, starring Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Adam Garcia, Lorraine Bracco and James Woods.

Based on Beverly D'Onofrio's acclaimed 1990 memoir, Penny Marshall's 'Riding In Cars With Boys' provides Drew Barrymore with arguably the first 'meaty' role of her career. More used to undemanding sugary fluff like 'The Wedding Singer' and 'Never Been Kissed', here Barrymore makes a step up to what critics like to call 'serious' stuff. It's not Meryl Streep territory, and it's asking too much of an audience to accept Barrymore both as a 15-year-old and a 35-year-old, but the former child star does enough here to suggest she shouldn't come exclusively under the 'bittersweet chick flick' category in casting director's lists.

The film begins with 35-year-old D'Onofrio (Barrymore) riding in a car with her 20-year-old son Jason. The pair are travelling to see Ray (Zahn), D'Onofrio's ex-husband and Jason's absentee father. The journey isn't an attempt for Jason to bond with his father and make up for lost time – it's a meeting to get Ray's written clearance so that D'Onofrio's publishers can proceed with her recently penned memoirs. The film then flashes back to the mid-60s, and to an episode that was to change the course of Beverly's life forever.

A bright, bubbly 15-year-old with aspirations of becoming a writer, D'Onofrio's career path changes one night when she goes riding in a car with nice-but-dim loser Ray Hasek. Naturally enough, Ray also parks the car. Pregnant at 15, Bev sees her hopes and dreams swiftly shattered as she is forced to marry Ray by her stern and disapproving father (Woods). What follows is a chronicle of a young girl's struggle to cope with a child, her husband's drug dependence, a subsequent divorce and her eventual role as a single parent – all of this while still nourishing the faint but tangible hope of one day becoming a published author.

In a film where the destiny of the central character is pre-ordained, the success of 'Riding In Cars With Boys' hinges on the presentation of D'Onofrio's journey from pregnant at 15 to published at 35. The problem here is that we only see the early years of the journey. The film charters the development of the relationship between Jason and his mother up to his eighth year, offering us nothing of her struggle to write the book during her son's difficult teenage years. This is the film's fatal flaw.

On the plus side, Marshall doesn't attempt to portray D'Onofrio as some sort of hero. The difficulties, frustrations and sporadic mini-triumphs of single parenthood are compassionately pitched, but the film never shies away from showcasing the furtive friction that exists between a single mother and her child. In the end, what we have is a quietly rewarding film that should bring Barrymore at least the promise of more interesting scripts through the letterbox.

Tom Grealis