Good for the soul 

Consider this contradictory impulse: Americans adamantly defend the right to privacy, yet we have evolved into a nation of confessors. Just look at movie stars, America’s ultimate celebrities. Once ferociously protected from inquiring minds by the Hollywood studio system’s publicity departments, they now openly discuss subjects (addictions, infidelities, sexual orientation) which would have destroyed the careers of their predecessors, and they’re doing it to an audience eager for every lurid — and banal — tidbit.

Meanwhile, television talk shows are packed with everyday Americans eager to confess their most intimate and humiliating secrets for a taste of celebrity. This tell-all impulse has even permeated the rareified world of book publishing, where memoirs have become a vital category in the nonfiction market.

Why have personal stories, from the famous and average alike, become so intrinsic to our culture? Could it, as Ira Glass (host of NPR’s confessathon “This American Life”) suggests, be our collective hunger for real stories instead of the cookie-cutter narratives offered to us by our lowest-common-denominator entertainment industry?

A good case study for this phenomenon is Riding In Cars With Boys: Confessions Of A Bad Girl Who Makes Good, Beverly Donofrio’s 1990 memoir about being a smart girl, a wild child and a teenage mother during the 1960s. Donofrio recalls her restless years in working-class Wallingford, Conn. (including a tumultuous marriage), moves through her Ivy League university years as a single mother, and ends when she has established a career as a writer and is dropping her son, Jason, off at his college dorm.

The trajectory of Donofrio’s life is inherently dramatic, but what makes her story special enough to become not just a literary success (she’s already published a sequel, Looking For Mary) but get the full Hollywood treatment?

Producer Sara Colleton bought the rights to Riding In Cars With Boys while it was still in manuscript form. (This is the first in an upcoming wave of memoir-based films.)

“This particular story appeals to something that I think everyone goes through,” she explains in Los Angeles, “which is: there’s the life you dream about having and there’s the life you get. And how you deal with the life you get defines the person you are. That is a universal thing, and that is what this story does, and that’s worth examining.”

“I really respect people who are willing to share their stories,” says Drew Barrymore, who portrays Donofrio, “and the more extraordinary they are, the more you thank them for sharing that. I think that every single person on this planet has the ability to change the world for the better, and if they give some insight or relatibility in what they write, I love that.”

The 26-year-old Barrymore, whose own memoir, Little Girl Lost (detailing her very young immersion in Hollywood’s high life), was published while she was in her teens, appreciates that Donofrio isn’t afraid of appearing unlikable.

“She just said everything like it was,” explains Barrymore, “even if it was just ugly. The way that she sometimes, embarrassingly, kicked in screens at having to give up her life because she was a child when she had Jason. I think it’s refreshing and wonderful that this industry is telling a story that’s so honest. The trials and tribulations that we have in families, the mistakes that we make, and yet there is triumph for Bev and Jason that’s not wrapped up like a pretty package.”

Yet creative license was taken with the events of Donofrio’s life.

Composite characters were created from several real people, a romance was manufactured for Jason to heighten dramatic tension and large portions of her life weren’t dealt with onscreen.

“One could do an entire movie,” says producer Laurence Mark, “about a coed with kid at Wesleyan. It’s very hard for that to be only a chapter. The book does offer you any number of choices that you have to make, which is why it’s a challenging book to adapt, because you could go in any number of directions.”

“A memoir is a memory,” adds Sara Colleton. But for an adaptation, she says: “I think all the artists involved have to decide what the truths are. As long as you remain steadfast to those, around them you can find a lot a ways to create that truth.”

It helped that Donofrio was involved every step of the way (even appearing onscreen as a wedding party guest with her son) and that director Penny Marshall established a very specific tone. Instead of Lifetime movie-of-the-week sentimentality, Riding In Cars With Boys draws its humor from bittersweet observations of uncomfortable situations. Donofrio isn’t portrayed as a martyr or saint, but as a complex individual riddled by conflicting impulses.

Marshall was drawn to this story in large part because she became a mother at 19 (daughter Tracy Reiner plays the nurse who presents Jason to his young parents). Although the film is filled with comic vignettes, Marshall was adamant that the experience of being a teenage mother not be treated lightly.

“It’s about flawed people,” she asserts, “it’s about how you deal with raising kids. There’s no book written on being a good mother, no matter what age you are.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail

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