“Joyride” is a jalopy of a film. This Irish-set story of a brand-new single mother and a precocious 13-year-old boy who end up on the road together is so scattershot and far-fetched it overwhelms its better intentions — of which there are many.
Olivia Colman stars as the ironically named Joy, a frantic, beleaguered small-town lawyer traveling across County Kerry to give over her newborn daughter to her best friend, Mags (Aisling O’Sullivan), before jetting off to a Canary Islands vacay. Haunted by a difficult childhood that included a beastly mum and a philandering dad — and also struggling with postpartum depression — Joy feels ill-equipped to be a parent herself and can’t wait to exit from her maternal duties.
That is, until the taxi she’s taking to Mags’ house is stolen by the brash Mully (Charlie Reid), an underage — and ridiculously competent — driver fleeing from his scheming father, James (Lochlann Ó Mearáin). Mully has swiped a pile of charity cash, raised in his late mother’s memory, away from his dodgy “da” (who has dubious plans for the dough). But the accidental cabbie soon realizes his backseat “passengers” are the drunk-dozing Joy and her swaddled infant — and the titular joyride begins. (Mully’s boozy nickname for Joy provides one of the movie’s few real chuckles.)
Stories like this being what they are, the deeply mismatched Joy and Mully slowly find ways to bond and help each other come to terms with their life predicaments. That one of these moments will include Mully coaching Joy on how to breastfeed the reluctant baby she’s randomly named Robin, may not be on any viewer’s bingo card. It proves both an awkward and implausible episode (even for the haplessly distraught Joy and uber-resourceful Mully), but, on balance, no more so than most of the action here.
The geographical and practical logic of Joy and Mully’s hasty, obstacle-filled journey proves a low priority in the overly fanciful script by Ailbhe Keogan; you could drive any of the movie’s many featured vehicles through its string of plot holes. As a result, the film, earnestly directed by Emer Reynolds (2017’s award-winning documentary “The Farthest”), relies largely on the potential appeal of its quirky characters, bucolic loveliness and Celtic strains to counter its absurdities, excessive symbolism and forced parallels. But that’s a heavy lift.
It’s safe to say you can’t go entirely wrong if you have an actor of Colman’s caliber on hand — and this is no exception. She dives into Joy’s emotional whirlwind with no less commitment than she has shown in such superior films as “The Father,” “The Lost Daughter” (with which “Joyride” shares a slight thematic overlap) and the current “Empire of Light.” But there’s ultimately only so much even the best performer can do with a character as curious, contradictory, often off-putting as Joy. Her hot-potato attitude toward baby Robin hardly evokes sympathy, despite Joy’s longstanding emotional baggage (which, in the real world, might only partially justify her behavior).
That raises the question of whether Joy wouldn’t have been a more credible, empathetic soul had she been written as significantly younger, before she’d had those added decades to better work out her issues? By the time she is in what’s presumably her mid-to-late 40s, it feels as if there’s far more complicated and irrevocable — and irresponsibly unmanaged — dysfunction at work that has led to her present unhinged state. It also makes the tidy, rather speedy way things wrap up a lot less believable, much less believably finite.
And then there’s the film’s biggest mystery: Who is Robin’s father? Joy says, in passing, that she has no idea. But maybe narrow it down for us? Just a thought, but whoever he is might have wanted to adopt the child. Second riddle: Aside from a go-nowhere police chase, why isn’t the law more on Joy and Mully’s tails, given all the unapologetic mayhem they’re causing?
As the impulsive but big-hearted Mully, Reid has charisma and pathos to spare; he’s a find. He makes what could have been an insufferable part into something warm, captivating and memorable. Still, his Mully is so preternaturally capable for his young age, you half expect him to deliver a baby rather than just help tend to one. Yes, we’re to assume that Mully, not his dad, has been the “man of the family” since his saintly mum’s death three years before. But does that affect his facility to steal cars — and one very visible ice cream truck — like a seasoned pro? Did I mention he’s a deft song stylist as well?
Only in the movies.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 23. Laemmle Glendale; also available on VOD