When taxi driver Long (Hiep Tran Nghia) reluctantly sets out to take a ride towards the start of The accidentally fleeing driver, he has no way of knowing where the journey might take him. Even those of us in the audience, familiar with the title, might have a hard time guessing it. Because although the film begins as the gritty crime thriller suggested by its basic premise, it pivots, unexpectedly but effectively, into something far more tender.

From the minute we meet Long, it’s obvious what kind of existence he leads. We see him for the first time alone in a shabby apartment, listening to an old CD so battered that it hardly plays anymore. Her neighbors can be seen and heard playing chess outside her window, but this elderly, exhausted soul seems to have no place among them. When called for a late night job, he growls but eventually relents. Either way, it’s not like there’s anything more exciting.

The accidentally fleeing driver

The essential

Strong sensations give way to surprising feelings.

Location: Sundance Film Festival (American Drama Competition)
Discard: Hiep Tran Nghia, Dustin Nguyen, Dali Benssalah, Phi Vu, Gabrielle Chan
Director: Sing J. Lee
Screenwriters: Sing J. Lee, Christopher Chen

1 hour 57 minutes

His three clients, captured in a dark corner, turn out to be a little more difficult to pin down. Tây (a magnetic Dustin Nguyen) seems the most accessible of the trio – but when Long, having realized that these men are useless, tries to kick them out of his car, it is Tây who calmly raises his gun. From the backseat, Aden (Dali Benssalah) radiates cold menace, while young Eddie (Phi Vu) sits silent and surly. As Long finds out in a TV report, they are freshly escaped prisoners from an Orange County jail, looking to keep a low profile as they plan their next steps.

For the first half of The accidentally fleeing driverdirector Sing J. Lee (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Chen, based on a 2017 QG article by Paul Kix) heightens the suspense. The close-ups capture the fear that crosses Long’s bespectacled eyes and the details they pick up – a bloodstain on the seat, a doorknob that could bring death or salvation, the red glow of a fire back of the car illuminating Aden and Tay’s faces as they chat out of Long’s earshot. And despite some early, half-hearted assurances that no one needs to get hurt, Long’s terror is definitely justified; during a restless night at a motel, Aden promises Long a “quick and efficient” death with more than a trace of sardonic glee.

But things start to turn at the next motel, where Long, Tay and Eddie await Aden’s return with the false papers he promised to take them on the loose. As the hours pass, hostility and mistrust give way to boredom, until the three Vietnamese men start playing and chatting. Long, who had rebuffed Tay’s first attempts at conversation with a curt, “Should I talk to you?” listens to Tây recount the journey that brought him here over a shared cigarette. Tay admits to Long that he enjoys talking to him, even though Long only engages in the hope that Tay will let him go.

Meanwhile, flashbacks and dream sequences woven throughout the 117-minute drama fill in the blanks in Long’s life: his fading memories of an idyllic childhood, his traumatic experiences of war and the years that followed. , his estrangement from a family that no longer understands him (literally – Long barely speaks English, and when he reunites with his children in America after decades away, he discovers that they have never learned to speak Vietnamese ).

“The machine devoured him and spat him out, just like us,” Tay thinks at one point, when Aden asks him to explain his weakness for the old man. And while some of the escapees’ justifications for their predicament ring hollow (“We are living proof that genuine, kind people make mistakes” would probably sound much more convincing to Long if he weren’t literally held hostage by guys telling each other that), The accidentally fleeing driver takes up the parallels between Long’s predicament and that of his passengers. All are men pushed to the margins by a society that would do well to forget them completely, whether because of their strangeness, their criminal records, their age or simply the misery they carry with them. With a little compassion, Long begins to see it too.

It’s a testament to Lee’s confidence and sensitivity that the shift from white-knuckle tension to serious emotion works as well as it does, although the transition isn’t without its victims. While Long and Tây grow richer and deeper as characters, Aden and Eddie remain two-dimensional supporting actors – and in Eddie’s case, another flattened by an uneven performance. Meanwhile, the change in tone is so complete that by the final act, any real sense of danger has been washed away. A climactic fight by the beach is more superficial than cathartic, as if some of these characters haven’t yet realized the plot has already left them behind.

But Lee wins the heartbreaking emotions of the final act by not overplaying his hand. Themes of family and connection are woven into the storyline with a deft touch. Nghia and Nguyen have the opportunity to grow their relationship organically, one small empathetic gesture at a time. It’s not hard to imagine the version of this trip that might have relied too heavily on its sentimentality, leaning toward the allure of a tidy Hollywood ending. The accidentally fleeing driver keeps its course modest, and finds itself somewhere more surprising, more honest, and ultimately more rewarding for it.