Panic Fest Review: Night Drive
Weird, grisly rideshare buddy comedy takes strange detours
By Richard Whittaker,
9:20AM, Tue. Apr. 13, 2021
Remember ride shares? Panic Fest selection Night Drive does.
After premiering at Fantastic Fest 2019, now Night Drive has a time capsule feel now. Deliberately so (it's explicitly set in 2018) and not just because this was the weird, wild era when people would allow maskless strangers into the back of their car.
Not that weathered and tired Jaunt driver Russell (AJ Bowen) doesn't have plenty of reasons to regret accepting Charlotte (Sophie Dalah) as a passenger - and not just that she decides to call him Rusty. She's self-assured, jovial, a little too well-informed while still being evasive about everything she has planned.
Hiding its high concept script mechanic under a lo-fi exterior, Night Drive deals with a very simple concept: when confronted with the possibility of getting away with everything, do people make the right decisions? Bowen deploys his affable everyman persona with a new twist of desperation as Russell, the tech developer who cashed out at just the wrong moment and now finds himself driving the world's most charmingly obnoxious/obnoxiously charming passenger into an off-kilter ride.
The signposts are all there - turn left at After Hours, straight on to Something Wild - and yet Night Drive never feels derivative of those chaotic rom coms. In no small part, that's because writer/director Meghan Leon and director Brian Baruh take any romantic tension off the table. Twenty-something Charlotte deliberately digs at Russell's age and greying hair, a quick knife-twist that keeps a certain distance between them. Yet it's not that there's no frisson between the two. Bowen plays the outwitted straight guy to a T, constantly trying to catch up with the scheme that is wrapped up within Charlotte's gleefully erratic behavior. As the night takes them on ever more diversions, and Russell realizes how much he is not in control, the effortless banter between the perfectly-paired Bowen and Dalah keeps the audience along for the ride, even as the story slips between rat-a-tat comedy dialogue, ludicrous and not-so-funny grand guignol, and noir-esque betrayals.
Putting the overwrought complexities of their collaboration on the directionless Applecart (later re-edited and released as Dead Night) behind them, Baruh and Bowen's creative partnership finds a much smoother gear with Night Drive. Quirky and small, it manages some very radical gear shifts without ever not feeling like its own fascinating, idiosyncratic self.
Night Drive streams as part of the virtual Panic Fest through April 18. Passes and tickets available via www.panicfilmfest.com.