There will be a time when the movies finally catch up with way we use technology and someone checking their phone will not be a lazy signifier for a hectic, shallow, misdirected life. But that day hasn’t arrived for Helen Hunt’s generic comedy-drama Ride, in which Hunt’s smartphone vibrates and chirps like an electroshocked cockatiel. Her Jackie is very busy as a fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine and busier still as the micromanager of her son’s affairs, enough though he’s headed for college in the fall and bristles at his mother’s attention. As it happens, there’s a reason why she’s so overprotective, but for now, mother and son are constantly barking at each other over his future as a writer and whether that future is under his control or dictated by her. They will take separate summer journeys from the hustle-bustle of New York to the bitchin’ shores of the California coast, and it doesn’t take a fortune-teller to guess that Jackie’s arc can be traced by more sensible data usage.
Making her second feature as a director after Then She Found Me in 2007, Hunt takes a page from Woody Allen in Jackie’s Manhattan-centric hyper-neuroses and knee-jerk contempt for the West Coast. After setting her son Angelo (Brenton Thwaites) up at NYU, Jackie bids farewell to him for the summer, as he heads to Los Angeles to live with his father (Robert Knepper) and pursue a secret interest in surfing. When Jackie gets word that Angelo has dropped out of college to ride the literal and proverbial waves, she leaves her job behind and flies out to L.A. to confront him about it. Once there, however, Jackie’s annoyance at her son’s poor life choices manifests itself into a surprising curiosity, so she takes up surfing lessons with Ian (Luke Wilson), a laid-back dude who emerges as a prime candidate to end her five-year-long celibacy streak.
The scenes between Jackie and Angelo are mostly unbearable, especially in the early going, when their unceasing confrontations are amplified by high-speed banter that attempts the snap of screwball comedies, but lands closer to first-draft Aaron Sorkin. Though Angelo never grows beyond his petulance—he insists on calling his mother by her first name, despite their closeness—Ride improves slightly when Jackie hangs out with Ian and starts to loosen up a little. Hunt and Wilson are likable actors, and there’s something fun about Hunt writing herself into an appealing surf-and-turf fantasy. Still, it’s hard to miss the irony of Jackie counseling her son over how story endings should feel “surprising but inevitable” in a movie that’s all inevitability and no surprise. The simplicity of the film’s East Coast/West Coast assumptions bear out in the rest of the script, which rides such tidy little symmetries all the way to shore, as mom learns to relax and her son grows up a bit. Meeting somewhere in the middle is what mediocrities do.