Judge Joel Pearce had his critic's license suspended after this review, but after three evenings in remedial AICN school, he'll be good as new.
All Ben wanted was a job.
Driving Lessons is a number of things. It is proof that Rupert Grint will have a good career as an actor long after the Harry Potter series comes to a close. It's a heartfelt exploration of religion, and a funny look at what happens when religion becomes more important than people. It's a highly personal coming of age story, and an intelligent look at aging. Thanks to all these things, it's also a great film.
Facts of the Case
Ben (Rupert Grint) is 17 and starting to feel quite stifled by his religious and borderline deranged mother (Laura Linney, The Truman Show). At her request, Ben gets a job helping out retired actress Evie Walton (Julie Walters, Calender Girls). Evie is the pole opposite of his mother—brash, rude, and self-centered. Before Ben knows it, he's swept off on an adventure to Scotland with the aging actress, on a journey that will stretch him morally and spiritually.
Above everything, this is a film that hinges on the performances of Rupert Grint and Julie Walters. If their relationship didn't work, or came across as something it wasn't, the whole film would fall apart. Fortunately, that doesn't happen. For the first part of the film, it's almost painful to watch Grint in this role. This is the awkwardness of Ron multiplied by about ten, and it's absolutely remarkable. Watching the character develop and make his own decisions is even better. Julie Walters' Evie is the perfect counterpoint to this performance, a role full of bravado and confidence, that tries to cover a similar awkwardness. We are never sure what these two characters will do next, so their relationship is full of excitement and suspense. The smaller supporting roles are excellent as well, though both of Ben's parents seem a bit too cartoonish sometimes. We recognize the stereotypes, but they never break free the way they need to in this kind of film.
Beyond the performances, Driving Lessons is also an interesting exploration of faith. Ben's journey is spiritual as well, as he escapes his mother's strict rules and begins to think for himself. He's a boy that's never known anything else, and this film documents his first few steps into a larger world. Of course, religion is a dangerous thing to bring into a film. Whenever you do so, you run the risk of either deeply offending a minority, or alienating everyone else. Moral and religious questions are at the core of Driving Lessons, but they are presented in such a careful way that it won't drive many viewers away. Fundamentalist Christians might misunderstand Driving Lessons and think that it's antichristian. But Christianity and faith are never attacked in this film, just the tendency to let a set of rituals and rules become more important than people. It's a good message, one that can be appreciated by a wide range of people.
There's a lot more I could say about Driving Lessons, but I think its real value is in an intangible. Much of the film comes from director Jeremy Brock's (writer of Last King of Scotland) personal experience as a teenager. I wasn't surprised to find that out, because the whole film—even at its most far-fetched—rings with total truth. These films often stray too far from believability to work as well as they should, but Driving Lessons never gets ridiculous. The soundtrack brings an air of sincerity to the production as well, taking advantage of Sufjan Stevens as well as other artists that live in the grey area between Christian and secular music. Driving Lessons is a heartwarming, warm, uncompromising, delightful little film, and it consistently entertains throughout.
The disc does a fine job of presenting the film. The image quality is fine, and I noticed no problems, weaknesses or flaws. The Dolby 5.1 track is also pleasant to listen to—easy to understand despite the accents—although the music tends to overpower the mix at times. There aren't many extras on the disc, but we are treated to some deleted scenes and outtakes. I would have loved to hear a commentary track with Brock, since it's such a personal project, but I had to make do with a brief production featurette. Here, we do get to hear Brock talk about the film. It's Brock's first film, but going from his approach here, I expect that we will see impressive films from him in the future.
Regardless of your faith, Driving Lessons is a film that will entertain and challenge you. It's a delightful comedy that stays with you for days, which is a rare thing to find. It truly is a unique look at relationships and growing up.
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• Production Featurette
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