Driving Lessons

(2006) ** Pg-13
98 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Jeremy Brock. Cast: Rupert Grint, Julie Walters, Laura Linney, Nicholas Farrell, Tamsin Egerton-Dick.

With crisp, sunny photography and the shorthand comfort of Sufjan Stevens songs, Driving Lessons tells a sweetly encouraging, but too-rarely-convincing coming-of-age tale. Based loosely on writer-director Jeremy Brock's own formative experiences under the aegis of an uptight Catholic family and the employ of Dame Peggy Ashcroft, this conventional Britcom lightly hums along for a good stretch before running off the road.

Rupert Grint of the Harry Potter films grows up on screen as Ben Marshall, the seventeen-year-old son of a preacher (Nicholas Farrell) and an uptight harpy (Laura Linney). Charged with supporting the family, Ben takes a job as personal assistant to a washed-up actress, Dame Evie Walton (Julie Walters). The older woman does for Ben what his parents have failed to do: instruct him to face the world, and encourage him to form his own identity.

With an unfortunately wobbly accent, Linney plays the domineering, uptight, judgmental, hypocritical mother as if she's more insane than she is merely selfish. Ben's pathetic paralysis in the presence of women traces to his mother's smothering influence and his father's emotional reticence--both traits awkwardly played for laughs and frowns in equal measure. In a dismal attempt to up the comedy quotient, Brock includes a crazily eccentric boarder who disrupts family bonding.

As the foul-mouthed, oh-so-outrageous old bat, Walters is a bit camp (her painted-on eyebrows give her a perpetually startled appearance), a sound strategy for making the character's canned gregariousness entertaining. It's Grint who grounds in reality, as best he can, Brock's directing debut. Banishing thoughts of antic Ron Weasley, Grint turns quiet, reactive, and introspective in the presence of uniformly weird, offputting adults. As he resists throwing his faith out with the bathwater, the true believer warms to new ecstasies, including a sexual initiation on a spontaneous road trip to Edinburgh.

The film's predictable dramatic shape and needy, crowd-pleasing tendencies completely boil over by the ridiculous climax, chased by a needlessly protracted denouement. It's not entirely clear where Ben's heading by film's end, but presumably he's off to make bland, simplistic fare like Driving Lessons. Shame, that.

[For Groucho's interview with Rupert Grint, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 7/3/2007

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Some movies are destined to play better at home than they do at a movie theater. There's a psychology behind it—getting one's rear to the theatre, having to pony up a week's pay for tickets and concessions, braving lines and annoying patrons: who can blame a viewer for demanding, "This better be good." In theatres, Driving Lessons flunked the road test, but the take-home exam is a lot easier.

Harry Potter nuts will joy to Driving Lessons on DVD. Aside from a solid anamorphic transfer and 5.1 sound, there's the featurette "Driving Lessons: Behind the Scenes" (17:21), which gives a nice production overview and affords the opportunity to hear Walters sing in praise of Grint's biceps (on behalf of his young fans, of course). Also heard from: Jeremy Brock, producer Julia Chasman, Grint, Linney, and Farrell.

Four deleted scenes don't amount to much (less than four minutes). "Old People's Home" (0:50), "Camping Store Scene" (0:32), "Ben at Dinner Table" (0:17), and "Hospital Scene" (1:55) are more trims than deleted scenes, as such. Seven minutes of not-terribly-amusing "Outtakes" show Grint occasionally having a hard time keeping a straight face around Linney and Walters. Trailers for Offside, The Italian, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, House of Flying Daggers, Riding Giants, and Dogtown & Z-Boys fill out the disc.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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