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A raunchy road movie with a divisive Rotten Tomatoes score marks a new, queer era in comedy by paying homage to past cult classics

 Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls .
Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls .

Fasten your seatbelts: Ethan Coen, one half of the Oscar-laden Coen brothers is in the director's chair for the first time without his brother Joel. Drive-Away Dolls sees him team up with his wife, long-time Coen brothers editor, Tricia Cooke, to write the script, but while his brother Joel opted for a black and white Shakespeare adaptation for his first solo directing endeavor (2021's The Tragedy of Macbeth), Ethan opted for a raunchy lesbian road movie, featuring both cunnilingus and decapitation.

Drive-Away Dolls harkens back to the midnight movies of decades past, with Windows Movie Maker-esque screen wipes and scene transitions. The film wears its trashiness on its sleeve as zany plot threads converge with steamy sex scenes and silly jokes, channeling the vibrant production design and camp melodrama of Jamie Babbit's '90s technicolor conversion camp comedy But I'm A Cheerleader.

Pedal to the metal

Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls
Geraldine Viswanathan and Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls

After a bad break-up, Jamie (Margaret Qualley) invites herself along on pal Marian's (Geraldine Viswanathan) road trip from Philadelphia to Florida to visit her aunt. While Marian would have been happy to spend her pit stops reading a Henry James novel, however, the outgoing, seductive Jamie makes sure they're checking in at every lesbian bar on the way in an attempt to get her guarded, more serious friend laid. What they don't realize, though, is that their hire car was meant to be assigned to another, much more dangerous client, and they're now inadvertently carrying a mysterious and valuable briefcase in their trunk all the way to Tallahassee.

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For anyone going into this movie expecting a healthy dose of criminal intrigue attached to a Coen directing credit, think again; this movie takes the sillier elements of the Coens' work and dials it up to 11. The film's goon subplot, which sees the intended driver of the girls' hire car send a double act of useless henchman in hot pursuit, is flimsy and absurd in equal measure, with the criminals taking on the provocative and two-dimensional caricatures often assigned to women and queer people in mainstream comedy.

The movie shares a cinematographer (Ari Wegner) and a cast member (Colman Domingo) with Zola, another bombastic road movie, but another recent release would make a more fitting double bill: Emma Seligman's 2023 release Bottoms, another silly, rowdy, violent lesbian comedy. Both feature two friends with mismatched personalities – ringleader PJ (Rachel Sennott) and socially awkward Josie (Ayo Edebiri) in Bottoms – and outlandish plots (PJ and Josie fabricate a criminal past and start an extracurricular fight club at their school to impress the girls they fancy). Both films also delve into the messy, sometimes gross, sometimes cringe realities of being a young woman grappling with matters of the heart (and, uh, genitals) in a way that's often not very sympathetic but always entertaining.

"Trashy, stupid gay stories"

Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls
Margaret Qualley in Drive-Away Dolls

Goofy, raunchy comedy has historically been a very male-heavy class of movie – think Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, and Will Ferrell's respective '00s filmographies – but films like Drive-Away Dolls and Bottoms are paving the way for a queer, female take on the genre. The irony is that Drive-Away Dolls is not a "new" movie – the 1999 setting was contemporary when Coen and Cooke first conceived of the film, but it's taken 20 years to reach the big screen. "At that time, it was possible for the industry to conceive of serious gay stories, but not trashy, stupid gay stories. It just didn’t compute," Coen told MovieMaker Magazine earlier this year.

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Although it may be easier to get "stupid" gay stories made now, trends are still skewing more somber. Despite queer cinema's pulpy roots, a recent spate of (albeit often excellent) lesbian dramas have opted for period settings and unhappy endings over camp and crassness. Drive-Away Dolls, though, echoes a sleaziness and fun more in tune with filmmakers of decades gone by, like John Waters, the so-called Pope of Trash.

Drive-Away Dolls is the first in Coen and Cooke's proposed "lesbian B-movie trilogy" with Qualley also set to star in the second installment, titled Honey Don't!, alongside Aubrey Plaza and Chris Evans. Filming is currently underway on the film, which follows a private investigator and a cult leader, and a third film, titled Go Beavers, is also in development.

In other words, there's no shortage of queer capers coming our way in the near future. And, if the wacky fun of Drive-Away Dolls is anything to go by, we're more than happy to hitch along for the rest of the ride.


Drive-Away Dolls is out now in cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series.