CATEGORIES Comedy, Drama, Tribeca, Theatrical Reviews, Harry Potter, Reviews, Tribeca Film Festival, Cinematical
Aside from its dialects and locations being distinctively English and Scottish, Driving Lessons feels very American. The coming-of-age film, which stars a stone-faced Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter films), has a story that seems straight off the assembly line of our own indie scene. Some of the conventions used in the script include the out-of-his-league crush, the casual virginity-loss, the overbearing and/or religious parent, the life-changing road-trip, and the cross-generational relationship that begins as student-mentor and ends as everlasting friendship. Such tried-and-true elements are not specific to the States, but with so many novice filmmakers here relying on generic adolescence as their easy starting point, the conventions have become staples of American cinema.
Grint plays Ben, a boy so far on the verge of manhood that he states his age as precisely 17½. He's not very ready for the world, though, thanks to his strict, protective mother (Laura Linney) and his weak father (Nicholas Farrell). When urged to get a summer job, Ben finds employment as an assistant for an aging actress named Dame Evie Walton (Julie Walters, who plays Grint's mom in the Harry Potter films), who not only helps him to grow up, but also helps him to have fun with the transition into adulthood, as well.
At first Ben's duties consist of simple care-taking, escorting and cleaning, but eventually Evie cons him into playing chauffeur, too. This becomes a little problem since Ben doesn't actually have his license, and then it becomes a bigger problem when he's forced to drive up to Edinburgh for a poetry reading, as Ben's mother has already forbid him to be gone overnight.
Walters, who earned an Oscar nomination for her brilliant mentor role in Billy Elliot, is the only person truly alive in Driving Lessons, but she overdoes her performance by about 1000 percent. She plays the eccentric theater vet as a loud, cursing, fast-talking old lady, and we've seen it all before, only more subdued. Perhaps she only appears as vibrant as she does because Grint is her expressionless opposite, but most of the time when she should be funny she comes off annoying.
The interesting thing about the most common, cliché narratives is they are often the most personal to their filmmakers. Jeremy Brock, known best as the screenwriter of Mrs. Brown and as co-creator of the British hospital soap-opera Casualty, makes his directorial debut with Driving Lessons, which he loosely based on his summer working for the Oscar-winning actress Peggy Ashcroft. No real-life is as cookie-cutter cute as the film, though, and it is a wonder if a more genuine approach might have made for a more honest, intriguing story, or a more quietly dull one. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but as we see in most autobiographical coming-of-age films, adolescent truth is just as boring as adolescent fiction.