I couldn’t help thinking that if NASCAR made movies like Lady Driver the sport would be cultivating a whole new legion of young fans and drivers. Fortunately, independent film companies like ESX Entertainment and Forrest Films are diving into these inspirational stories. While Lady Driver has its flaws, for the most part the movie is fun family-friendly entertainment.
Lady Driver tells the story of an angst-filled teenager, Ellie Lansing (Grace Van Dien). She’s bucking against her mother’s confining parenting in upper-crust Monterrey, California. Ellie is frustrated by her own interests being pushed aside — like getting her driver’s license — for family obligations and the ostracization she experiences at school for being different. Ellie is habitually late; she prefers her time in shop with the gearheads rather than regular academic classes. Fed up, Ellie runs away to search-out her estranged Uncle Tim (Sean Patrick Flanery) in northern California.
Tim, who is a functional alcoholic, has been shunned by Jessie (Christina Moore). Jessie is rebuilding a life with her second husband (John Ducey), and their daughter (Ellie’s younger stepsister). Unfortunately, the audience is given little information about Ellie and Jessie’s past. We suspect her biological father’s death is implied. While Ellie sees Uncle Tim as an escape, the manner of her father’s death will turn out to be pivotal.
Tim runs an auto-repair business. He begrudgingly acknowledges Ellie’s natural aptitude toward working on and understanding cars. More importantly, she discovers that Tim is a former race-car driver, like her father. The brothers ranked among the most successful drivers on the northern California dirt-track circuit. When Tim takes her to a track to watch her first race, Ellie is captivated by the sounds and culture. With her uncle’s reluctant support, she sets out to conquer the local dirt track.
Unfortunately, the movie suffers from several story structure and continuity issues. Ellie’s rebellion against her mother, for example, never quite rises to the level audiences (or parents) will believe she would run away. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. Isolating herself, leaving home to stay with a friend, slamming doors? Definitely. Leaving home to travel hundreds of miles in a beat-up car to stay with an uncle she doesn’t know? Highly unlikely. The dialogue also tends toward the predictable and derivative, relying on unimaginative formulas well trodden by the genre. This tendency is particularly acute when Ellie begins to spar with the good looking, arrogant, older teenage rival on the oval, Buck McReadie (David Gridley).
The Bottom Line
Fortunately, Lady Driver is saved by an excellent cast, including a top-flight performance by Grace Van Dien. She conveys a wonder and excitement about dirt-track racing that is difficult to convey without actually being on the sidelines and watching the action unfold. (Note: I have attended several stock-car races and can attest to the thrill.) Solid editing keeps the film at a fast clip during the race sequences. The movie benefits from the experience of a bevy of acting veterans, including Flanery, Moore, Amanda Detmer (as Tim’s friend, Loretta), and Casper Van Dien (as Ellie’s father in flashbacks).
I also greatly appreciated the focus on dirt-track racing rather than asphalt and pavement tracks. Dirt tracks are more common on the local and regional circuits. They are an unheralded but critical cog in race culture and a stepping stone toward national circuits. While NASCAR’s major series — Cup, Truck, and Xfinity — get the most press, the local tracks are the ones where the stars are born. Dirt-track racing, as Lady Driver shows, has a style, technique, and set of skills unique to its own, well suited for fans and drivers learning the ropes.
Overall, Lady Driver is an enjoyable, low-stakes movie fitting for a family friendly audience. With any luck, a new crop of young women might be inspired to take to the oval through Lady Driver or other movies like it. We need a few more to give the old boys club a real run for the checkered flag.