Driving Miss Crazy

Washington City Paper | November 3, 2006
Driving Lessons is as dull as its title. A coming-of-age story—nodding off yet?—about a British boy from a strict Christian family, Jeremy Brock’s directorial debut is most notable for featuring Rupert Grint, the first of Harry Potter’s three young stars to film outside the series. In that regard, the film is comparable to a television series that tries, and fails, to reinvent a former cast member of a popular sitcom. Grint gives it a respectable go; it’s Brock’s material—he’s also the writer, an area in which he’s more experienced—that falls short.

Grint plays Ben, a 17-year-old who spends one summer in Bible classes and helping out old people. His suffocating mum (Laura Linney) is also teaching him how to drive, refusing to let him get “proper lessons” even though he keeps failing the test. For some reason, Ben gets a job as an assistant to Evie (Julie Walters), an eccentric (naturally) former actress who tries to drink away her loneliness when Ben’s not around. They become instant friends all too quickly, especially considering Ben’s eye-contact-avoiding reticence. Soon the boy goes wild, rebelling against his mother by going camping with Evie and taking her to a literary festival in Scotland.

Yes, it’s all very English. Except it’s got the development of an empty Hollywood blockbuster. It’s never really clear what Ben, who also fancies himself a poet, does for Evie except offer companionship, though—symbolic-title warning—he does end up driving when she essentially kidnaps him to go sleep under the stars and then reveals that she doesn’t know how to operate her motorcar, either. Ben’s mother and seldom-seen vicar father (Nicholas Farrell) are one-note: She’s uptight, and he’s weary of her stranglehold on the family. A mom’s reluctance to set her baby free is understandable, but it feels as if there’s a particular, too-elusive reason at play here. Their faith, too, seems more like Brock’s shrugging method of shading his characters rather than beliefs Ben’s parents hold sacred.

Brock’s dialogue is mostly forgettable, occasionally dipping into treacle (“Don’t hurry your heart!”) or offering a laugh (Evie says to Ben on their camping trip, “I can tell God I forced you!”). Besides their characters having little to do and little motivation to do it, the actors are fine. Linney, with a subtle accent, is heartbreakingly desperate when she reprimands her son with, “You left God’s house. You will not leave it again!” Walters has a fluid physicality that allows her to be simultaneously elegant and funny, and she nibbles what she can of her scenes—especially her teary breakdown when Evie thinks she’s been abandoned by Ben. It’s a moment so freighted with emotion that the events prior might as well have been pre-show ads.

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