Apparently being a teenager in the UK sucks just as much as being a teen in America. That's one of the lessons I pulled out of the Sony Classic Pictures release Driving Lessons, along with a few other choice bits, such as, Edinburgh looks like a nice place to visit, and the English drive on the left side of the road (well, I already knew that one). Another thing I learned: English filmmakers use all the same cliches as American filmmakers. Who knew?
Here's how the story goes: Our hero, Ben Marshall--assayed by Rupert Grint, the red-haired co-star of the Harry Potter flicks--is a painfully shy teenager living near London, trapped in a home along with his withdrawn vicar of a father and ruled over by his domineering mother, played by Laura Linney. Laura Linney! What the hell is she doing here, besides looking pretty fine and sporting an ice-cold English accent? Beats me, but she's pretty good in this.
Anyway, Ben's folks take in a guy recovering from the shock of running over his wife, so Mom--who combines the faith-talking of Tammy Faye Bakker with the warmth and charm of Leona Helmsley--tells Ben he needs to get a job and help out. He answers a want ad for a personal assistant from washed-up actress Evie Walton, played by Julie Walters, who's usually playing Mr. Grint's mom in the aforementioned Harry Potter flicks. From there, much growing and hilarity ensues. Adultery, illegal driving, underage drinking ... hell, Rupert, I mean Ben, even gets it on with a Scottish lass to the soulful sounds of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon."
The problem with the film isn't in the acting. As mentioned, Linney does a fine job icing up the place, and Walters fills the bill with a well-timed combination of panache and vulnerability, with loads of f-bombs and varied other profanities sprinkled throughout. Old women talking dirty is overused, but it's still funny. Grint is a little more problematic; he's playing a character that is described at one point as having "social autism," and he takes that description literally. His expressions don't seem to change until 65 or so minutes into a 97-minute film, and that's way too long. However, I'm inclined to point the blame at writer-director Jeremy Block for that one, as Grint manages to find a few different tones for his voice and expressions for his face as the plot wears on.
The one sin that Driving Lessons really commits, ironically in a film that gives a lot of face time to talking of the divine relationship with man and the essence of being one's true self, is that everything is telegraphed so far in advance that it almost becomes a drinking game. See Walters drop a nasty bon mot, take a drink. See Grint talk (or not talk) himself into an embarrassing situation, take a shot. Guess the form of various characters' comeuppance for their boldly shouted character flaws, chug a beer. You can almost see the actors straining against the script to make these characters fly, but it just isn't happening, and all their hard work is limited in its punch.
But even cliches have truth in them, and the truth is that Driving Lessons isn't a total wash. English cinema has a long history of small-budget films, and as a result, Limey auteurs generally know how to make their films look good on shoestring funds. Brock is no exception; things never look less than professional, and some of the scenes in Edinburgh should be appropriated by their Chamber of Commerce for use in a travelogue. The soundtrack is mostly modern songs, and chosen from a selection of strong artists; I recognized songs by Sufjan Stevens, Ben Folds and the aforementioned Drake.
And despite the fact you know where it's going, it's one of those films that you feel good about the characters getting there, which makes it a good sight better than a lot of what Hollywood is busily spewing out. There may not be anything new to learn from these Driving Lessons, but it isn't necessarily a wasted trip.