Jeremy Brock’s directorial debut begins with such promise. The first 15 minutes focus on Rupert Grint’s (better known as Harry Potter’s geeky brother-in-arms, Ron Weasley) pasty, hang-dog face. It’s been years since I’ve encountered a visage that better communicates the awkwardness of the bumbling, confused male teen. When his Ben Marshall stumbles after a statuesque love interest or succumbs to his mother’s bullying, the actor’s face is flooded with a great, incommunicable but instantly recognisable, pain. Whatever else you might say about Brock’s Driving Lessons, he scored a coup in the casting of his male lead.
In fact, all the elements are in place to make this film really interesting. Ben Marshall is a slave to his overbearing but hypocritical Christian mother (Laura Linney). While his dusty vicar father hides in his study reading about skylarks, Ben is forced to play a tree in Mom’s Sunday school plays and donate money to help her most recent charity case: a senile old cross-dresser who she has invited into their home. When he’s pushed into finding a summer job, Ben stumbles across an elderly actress (Julie Walters) looking for an assistant. The grand old dame teeters on the verge of madness, endlessly creating drama around the most mundane of events.
Thus, the stage is set for a decent, if not entirely original, coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, Brock’s film is painful where it should be touching and droll where it should be funny. The main problem is the writing. Brock, who penned The Last King of Scotland, Charlotte Gray and the immensely popular British TV show Casualty, seems to struggles with material that’s closer to home. The story, as you may have guessed, is semi-autobiographical—as the teenaged son of a vicar himself, Brock worked for Dame Peggy Ashcroft (who played Mrs. Moore in Passage to India). But for a personal story, Driving Lessons feels very confused indeed. While Walters pulls out all the stops to evoke her Dame, and Linney struggles as best she can with her British accent and her steely eye, we never get a real sense of who either of these women are. The same is true of Ben. When he’s silent, Grint’s face speaks volumes. When Ben actually opens his mouth, however, what comes out is wooden and unbelievable. Teenage males (especially those who yearn to be poets) are by their natures awkward. But this is too much.
Driving Lessons fails because Brock never manages to successfully sell us on the characters and their conflict. It’s a shame too. With a cast like this and a writer of Brock’s proven skill, Driving Lessons should have been an interesting addition to the coming-of-age genre.
Driving Lessons opens Friday at the Carlton (20 Carlton St.).