Talking Points

Drive My Car and the case against superficial relatability

What'd you think of the movie?

It's a common enough question, and one we often answer with a story of our own. It was good — it was like that time I ... Or: It wasn't realistic, which I know because when I ... Writers are often advised to write what they know, and as readers and viewers we often gravitate toward what we know, too, choosing novels set in places we've visited or shows with characters who remind us of ourselves. Who hasn't loved a breakup album while going through a breakup?

Picking media because we can relate to it frequently feels like the natural thing to do. But relatability, taken so literally, shouldn't be the end point of experiencing art. Often, it shouldn't even be the beginning. Deciding whether to watch something — or, after watching, judging the experience — according to how well we can relate risks filtering out stories that don't fit neatly into our own understanding. Worse, especially if adopted by the dominant culture in a pluralist society like ours, this criterion risks flattening our stories, stifling new and challenging artistic voices, and, ironically, precluding connection with different people rather than fostering it.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's sublime Drive My Car represents a challenge to that regressive notion. The film itself is about the unlikely connection formed between a widower and his driver, a younger woman with whom he finds he shares an understanding of loss. Just under three hours, it is a focused story told so naturally viewers are brought completely into the nuances of the characters' lives. The late film critic Roger Ebert described cinema as a "machine that generates empathy," and Drive My Car is that machine in perfect form. It creates understanding not by being superficially relatable but by drawing us into its very particular tale. Audience members are invited to grow with Hamaguchi's work, not to be comforted with what we already know.

The film is up for four Academy Awards at Sunday's Oscars. This is the first time a film from Japan has been nominated for Best Picture and, whether we like the cultural power of the Oscars or not, an encouraging sign of Americans' rising willingness to open our minds to more expansive stories. When we aren't shallow in our media diet, we can open the door to a multiplicity of stories just waiting for us to discover them.