Drive-Away Dolls: a lesbian road trip comedy that feels authentic to the 1990s but stuck there, too

Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke’s self-consciously trashy road movie has some laughs, but at times the jokes just feel dated.

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian and Jamie in Drive-Away Dolls (2024)

“A story of two ladies going south” reads the tagline on the poster for Ethan Coen’s first narrative feature as sole director. In the film, which is set in 1999, best friends Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) do indeed travel from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, located in the southern state of Florida. But it’ll surprise no one that Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke have their tongues firmly in cheek (and other parts). The free-spirited Jamie is introduced from between a woman’s quivering thighs. 

Unfortunately, the thighs in question do not belong to Jamie’s long-suffering girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), who swiftly dumps her when she finds out. Meanwhile, it has been “three years, four months and fourteen days” since mopey, uptight Marian has had sex at all. Both decide they need a change of scene, and so they embark on a road trip to visit Marian’s aunt – with the plan of stopping off at every lesbian bar on the East Coast en route.

What the women do not know is that the car they’ve hired contains a mysterious package, and its bumbling prior custodians (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) are in hot pursuit. A silly B-plot involving a suitcase of prosthetic penises is, admittedly, funny. More tiresome, however, is the film’s inevitable narrative trajectory, which follows Marian’s sexual awakening and Jamie’s settling down.

Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian, Margaret Qualley as Jamie, Beanie Feldstein as Sukie (2024)

Qualley is charming rather than convincing as the insatiable Jamie, going for screwball heroine, with her flailing limbs, motormouth delivery and cartoon Texas twang. Feldstein (one of the only openly gay cast members, with Colman Domingo) is funnier as a prickly butch cop, while the usually witty Viswanathan is forced to downplay her natural swagger, and strains to bring humour to a dour role. 

This is Coen’s second film as a solo director, following the documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, released in 2022. But though it shares DNA with some of the lighter films he has directed with his brother Joel (particularly Raising Arizona, 1987), the film’s overplayed silliness feels like an attempt to free Dolls from any expectations of prestige filmmaking. While Joel’s solo debut, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), was an exercise in classy, stripped-down minimalism, Ethan’s first solo fiction feature is the inverse, seeming to revel in its own studied ‘bad taste’.

The film adopts a self-consciously trashy aesthetic. A violent prologue featuring Pedro Pascal in 1970s-style sunglasses uses schlocky canted angles: scenes transition like comic book panels, spinning 360 degrees before slotting into place, or sliding from right to left and slotting into place with a thud. Psychedelic B-roll footage is inserted of a witchy Miley Cyrus advocating pizza and free love. None of this is half as fun or wacky as it sounds.

More unexpected is the film’s climactic sex scene. Champagne is poured; a woman lays down on a hotel bed; Viswanathan is framed like a Hollywood goddess, her modesty tastefully preserved. Afterwards, the two women cuddle. It’s an attempt to subvert the kind of seduction that might appear in an aggressively heteronormative romcom, but the scene is not played for laughs.

The screenplay – originally titled Drive-Away Dykes – was co-written by Coen’s wife and long-time editor Tricia Cooke who identifies as queer. Though the couple have been married since 1993 and share two children, Cooke has said in interviews that theirs is a “non-traditional” arrangement, and that both she and Coen have other partners. The arc of the love story at the heart of the film isn’t as liberated, though the jokes are bawdy enough (“I don’t want it if we’re not both going to use it!” shrieks a tearful Sukie, removing a glittery dildo from its wall mount in her bedroom).

One aspect of the film that does raise an eyebrow is its retro take on lesbian culture. Setting the film in the 1990s allows Coen and Cooke to swerve contemporary queer politics. It betrays a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, but one that’s less evolved too. The lesbian sex is oddly centred around male anatomy, and monogamy is presented as a happy ending. Elsewhere, a women’s soccer team is depicted as a dated and unfunny stereotype: horny, unspeaking and interchangeable. A song by folk rock singer-turned-Broadway star Linda Ronstadt is an inside joke for an older crowd. It’s how the film feels: authentic to the late 90s, but stuck there, too. 

 ► Drive-Away Dolls is in UK cinemas from 15 March.