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Opinion: ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ is DeSantis’ worst fear

by Staff

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Heist films are all about how much fun it is to break the law — which means that they often, to one extent or another, critique the law.

At their least pointed, as in the Ocean’s franchise, heist films suggest that capitalism is a big scam, so you might as well grab what you can take if you’re cool enough (and look like George Clooney). But sometimes — as in Ethan Coen’s and Tricia Cooke’s wonderful “Drive-Away Dolls” — they’re more adventurous. Then, you get to root not just for those outside the law, but for a different law, and a different world: in this case, a world in which Florida’s homophobic politicians are driven from the state with dildos (metaphorically, more or less.)

Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky

Coen, best known for his collaborations with his brother Joel, co-wrote and co-directed “Drive-Away Dolls” with his wife and queer filmmaker, Cooke. The story is set in the early 2000s; Jamie (Margaret Qualley) has just broken up with her cop girlfriend, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein). Her friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) is tired of being single and sick of her job.

So, they rent a car and head to Tallahassee to hang out with Marian’s aunt. But the car they pick up just happens to be carrying a contraband suitcase and a mysterious smoking box. The suitcase and box are tied to a scandal involving conservative Senator Gary Channel (Matt Damon) — and he wants his things back. As the bad guys come after them, Jamie and Marian attempt to turn the tables and beat the criminals at their own game, as in many a heist movie.

The film has an effervescent camp punch quite different than classic Coen Brothers’ productions — from the psychedelic interludes to Jamie’s over-the-top Texas drawl and libido. But even amidst the fun and the retro setting, the script is clearly and deliberately aware of what’s happening in Florida right now.

From Focus Features

Jamie (played by Margaret Qualley) and Marian (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) are pictured in “Drive-Away Dolls.”

When Jamie and Tricia see Sen. Channel on an aggressively hetero billboard featuring his wife and kids, Jamie breaths, “Lesbians, don’t let the sun set on you here.” That’s a reference to sundown towns in the American Midwest, where all-White communities target (primarily) Black people through discrimination, beatings or worse after nightfall. And while it might be an exaggeration to say that Florida was that dangerous for queer people in 2000, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his minions are trying their best to fulfill Jamie’s worst fears.

Over the last few years, DeSantis has passed what critics call “Don’t Say Gay” laws that prevent discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in many Florida schools, resulting in mass censorship of books in libraries and classrooms and predictably resulting in the resignation of LGBTQ teachers. Florida has also passed legislation allowing health care providers and insurers to deny care to LGBTQ people on “religious” grounds, and has made it illegal for trans people to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

Florida has also prohibited its residents from changing gender markers on driver’s licenses, meaning trans people’s IDs won’t reflect their actual identity. Many trans people will effectively be outed any time they show their license, making them vulnerable to further discrimination.

In short, the state is using the law to try to turn LGBTQ people, and especially trans people, into second class citizens, who can be discriminated against in health care, employment and even over which bathrooms they use. As a father, I am thinking twice, and more than twice, about whether my trans daughter can visit her grandparents in Florida given the current regime. It’s not safe to visit a travel to a place where they’ve made your existence illegal.

From Focus Features

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan co-star in Ethan Coen’s and Tricia Cooke’s latest film, “Drive-Away Dolls.”

“Drive-Away Dolls” takes place 20 years before DeSantis’ regime of smug hate locked in. But the film still gets energy and mileage from the sense that just showing queer people driving and living and being horny in Florida is a bit of rainbow glitter thrown into the law’s toothy smirk.

Free-spirited Jamie and buttoned-up Marian engage in some loitering, some extortion, some lewd use of stolen property and maybe some public indecency as they dodge thugs and back-talk the law. The real heist, though, is stealing pleasure — in each other, in the senator’s misappropriated goods, in a passing women’s soccer team — from a state and a world that wants them to disappear.

This isn’t the first lesbian heist film to kick the patriarchal homophobic law in its upright moralism and scurry away with the cash. The Wachowski sisters “Bound” (1996), John McNaughton’s “Wild Things” (1998) — also set in Florida — and the less-openly-LGBTQ-but-still-pretty-obviously-LGBTQ “Ocean’s 8” (2018) are all predecessors. “Drive-Away Dolls” is, though, the breeziest of these, rolling into Florida onscreen with the windows down even as the cops, governors and senators in the real world glower more and more ominously.

Heist films can end in a grim bloodbath, like Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), but many of them are (like the Ocean films) more cheerful celebrations of a world in which you can game the system and win. Coen’s and Cooke’s film is one of the purest expressions of heist-as-utopia in the genre. The exhilaration of the heist film is that the rules no longer apply; it offers an anarchic release, in which those who refuse to live by the law are rewarded with all the money. The money is nice in “Drive-Away Dolls” too, but it’s off to the side of the real promise, which is queer expression, queer community, queer love and queer lust without a judge or congressional delegation ruling you guilty.

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The heart of the film is a mostly dialogue-less flashback to Marian’s youth. In the present day, Marian is less adventurous and less sex-driven than Jamie. But younger Marian was obsessed with her nude, sun-bathing neighbor, and drilled a hole in the fence to watch her.

The scene is reminiscent of Norman spying on Marion in Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho” (1960) — a viciously transphobic film about a heist gone awry in which everyone involved is punished, by both karma and the gendarmes. But there is no punishment for Marian (who may well be named for her Hitchcockian predecessor). She looks, and is, happy, and nothing happens to her except that she grows up and gets away with more.

“Drive-Away Dolls” tells the audience watching through that fence or otherwise, that queer looking, queer film, queer art and queer people are all a valuable, fun and worthy heist. Even if — or especially if — DeSantis and Florida want to make them illegal.

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