Surely, by now, we are all well aware that the road child stars must travel to the promised land of (working) adult actors is littered with innumerable hazards. In the environment of hyperactive voyeurism that surrounds today’s young stars, they are faced with the Herculean task of transitioning from well-managed innocence to assured maturity with nary a mistake allowed. For child actors so culturally identified with one role in particular, this undertaking must appear even more daunting.
It’s little wonder, then, that Rupert Grint – heretofore known as Harry Potter’s best friend, Ron Weasley – has chosen to step out on this perilous road not with the drama of a thunderous leap, but quietly, as if on a tiptoe. In Driving Lessons, Grint leaves the wizarding world behind and settles instead on one young man’s idiosyncratic journey of self-discovery.
Unfailingly polite and genuinely earnest, Ben Marshall (Grint) is a teenage boy whose quiet charms and sensitivities are forever eclipsed and ignored by those around him – from his overbearing mother (Laura Linney) to his disinterested schoolmate crush. Shy and socially awkward, his only real form of expression comes through his writing of poetry.
Ben is a dutiful drone to his mother’s inexhaustible acts of Christian charity. From delivering food to local pensioners to participating in church plays, he appears to be as henpecked and defeated as his vicar father (Nicholas Farrell). After turning 17, Ben’s mother agrees to supervise his driving lessons in exchange for his charitable deeds. He quietly suspects, though, that the driving lessons are more a convenient cover for his mother’s tryst with their church’s new young vicar and less to do with her wanting to impart the principles of Christian charity.
After his mother takes in an elderly neighbor grieving over the loss of his wife (whom he ran over with his car), Ben is urged to contribute to the family’s growing household expenses. Answering an advertisement seen in his church’s newsletter, he soon finds employment as a personal assistant with a retired local actress. A self proclaimed “Dame”, Evie Walton (Julie Walters) is an over-the-hill actress whose personal theatrics and melodrama far outshine any role she has ever undertaken on the stage or screen. Impulsive, outlandish, and wildly eccentric (to the point of exhaustion), Evie is a direct counter to the quiet, staid nature of young Ben.
Both horrified and attracted to Evie’s outsize antics – ranging from drunken blackouts to impassioned backyard productions of Shakespeare – Ben slowly emerges from his withdrawn world. Their afternoons together prove to bolster Ben’s confidence, and he begins to pull back and resist his mother’s control. Naturally, his imperious mother does not look favorably upon this new influence, and she tries to reassert the primacy of her role in his life.
One afternoon, Evie insists upon a camping trip for the duo and Ben, still without a proper license, is ordered to be her personal chauffer. In clear violation of his curfew, Ben goes along and eventually (through a bit of trickery) agrees to drive Evie up to Scotland so that she may perform a reading of dramatic works at the Edinburgh Festival. The open road proves to be a tonic not only for Ben, but for the film, as well. As Ben and Evie’s relationship moves from restlessly cautious to mutually encouraging, the film gathers momentum. The inevitable climactic “showdown” between Evie and Ben’s mother results comfortably (and too predictably) in Ben’s personal liberation.
For many, the appeal of Driving Lessons will no doubt be to see Rupert Grint and Julie Walters outside of their familiar roles as Ron and Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise. Luckily, the two leads shine in their many scenes together, and it is a joy to see the elder Walters push the talented Grint as an actor. That said, there is little that distinguishes Driving Lessons from its more familiar predecessors (see: Harold and Maude and Tea and Sympathy). Thankfully, there are no sexual undertones in Driving Lessons, but the character juxtaposition and the lessons of self-discovery gleaned from these differences is obvious from the onset.
While the two leads infuse a sporadic charm and energy into the script, the film feels labored by its predictability. One wishes that the spontaneity and freedom Evie seeks to impart to young Ben could have been applied to the film itself. In his first directorial effort, long-time writer Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown, Charlotte Gray) adheres too rigidly to the story’s schematics, and ends up sacrificing the development of his characters. One wishes Brock would have spent more time with Walters and Grint and less on the dramatic posturing that stuffs the script.
Driving Lessons is a charming film with strong (if somewhat inconsistent) performances and the DVD entices with a host of packaged extras (deleted scenes, interviews, making of documentary, etc.), but ultimately it travels a road we have been down before.