I don't know what I was expecting when I went to see the film Driving Lessons, with Rupert 'I'm not just a Harry Potter character!' Grint and Julie Walters, but I didn't think it was going to be a great film. It looked like it was going to be one of those quirky British cliches-masquerading-as-films about the life of a young man growing up somewhere in a working-class town who meets an unusual character (in this case, Julie Walters) and finds himself learning something about life. Or, in the case of this film, driving. Heck, throw in a handsome outsider who gradually wins over the suspicious-but-down-to-earth locals with his charming ways, and you've pretty much got the plot of every British film for the past decade.
As it turned out, the handsome outsider - in this instance, a Pentacostal preacher - turns out to be a total tosser, who casts himself as Jesus in the Church play while having it off with the mother of Ben (Rupert Grint). Laura (played, oddly enough, by Laura Linney) is fucking nuts, and she occupies herself by indoctrinating her son, making sure he goes to bed before eight o'clock, and generally making sure her craziness rubs off on him. She does a side-line in putting down her husband, Robert, the local vicar - while having it off behind his back.
For some reason, she thinks it's a good idea to get Ben a job with a local actress - and a good thing, too, or the plot would never get moving. The actress in question is Dame Evie Walton, a hilariously over-acting old loon who treats her gardening like a small-town case of genocide. (In her first scene she is hammering at her garden with a shovel and swearing at it). Being a disreputable old screamer who never learned a law she didn't hate, she makes a natural pair up for Ben, a squeamish stickler for the rules. She's also given to the occasional fit of hyperbole, or hangovers, which helps to win Ben over to her side.
The 'driving lessons' are a bit of a side joke; she somehow cons Ben to drive her around the country roads despite his not having a licence.
She gets the best lines, too; in one scene, she tries to con Ben into drinking a glass of wine.
"No!" he begs. "I can't! I'm only seventeen and a half!"
"So young!" she sighs, forcing the glass on him, "And so pedantic."
(This after she cons Ben into driving her into the countryside, lies to a landowner about paying him in the morning, sets up a tent, and swallows the key when he starts hyperventilating about what his mother will think. And so on.)
This morning, I read an interview with the director and writer of the film, Jeremy Brock, where he says about Rupert Grint that 'He has a uniquely natural gift for communicating emotion without effort'. That's true enough. Rupert somehow manages to stand still for almost the entire film and seem like an entirely squeamish milksop who's terrified of what the consequences will be when he gets home and his mother finds out. Or perhaps I'm underexaggerating. But it's this performance that makes the whole film, so that by the time Ben does start saying and doing things interesting, you can tell that he really means it. The best line in the film is probably Ben's 'Fuck off, Sarah'. Of course, he also tries to convert the Dame with a 'God is love' speech at one point - it's sort of like he has to get it out of his system - but by the end of the film, it's pretty clear that he's left his mother's brand of nutterdom behind. In one of the last scenes, he sets up a tent with his father in the backyard. (One of the nice things about this film is that it's not an anti-religious tract, but it makes some very sharp observations about the good and the bad in religious communities).
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