Come, leave your tears: a brief farewell: the beast
With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,
Where is your ancient courage? You were used
To say extremity was the trier of spirits.
—Coriolanus Act IV Scene 1
Early in Driving Lessons, 17-year-old Ben (Rupert Grint) decides that he must declare his independence. Sort of. Surely, he has cause to want distance himself from his family. His demoralized father Robert (Nicholas Farrell), a vicar at the local church, tends mostly to go along with whatever his self-righteous wife Laura (Laura Linney) wants. When mom starts giving him driving lessons — her voice shrill and her motives ulterior (she has him park outside her curate lover’s home while she cavorts within) — Ben reaches a kind of breaking point, though he doesn’t know it.
As if this metaphor is not burdensome enough, the film presents Ben with a series of non-options. Resenting his dad’s weakness as much as his mother’s domination, the boy moons briefly after his lovely classmate Sarah (Tamsin Egerton). At first, she accommodates his offers to walk her home, but when he begins reading his dreadful, plaintive poetry to her, the girl is understandably put off by his awkwardness and worse, his neediness.
Option number two is the summer job Laura encourages Ben to find. This comes in the form of retired stage actress Evie Walton (Julie Walters, who, everyone knows, plays Mrs. Weasley to Grint’s Ron in the Harry Potter franchise), who essentially wants him to serve her own many needs. Reportedly based on writer-director Jeremy Brock’s own experiences working for the Peggy Ashcroft, Driving Lessons goes on to make terrible fun of the actress, whose overbearing, crazy-seeming behavior seems cribbed from every other movie featuring such a character, including those for which young Grint is best known. If Evie isn’t precisely “witchy,” she is giddily grotesque, the sort of caricature that has her alternately dottering, pronouncing, and drinking.
Walters is more than up to the task of delivering chunks of Shakespeare (Coriolanus) with a combination of poise and appealing force. When Evie relives her apparent past, recalling who she was and the command she wielded over various audiences, she’s daunting. Her suggestion to Ben that he is too intelligent and even too poetic to be appreciated by mere mortals seems almost convincing. Her vulgarity and frustration are predictable but also understandable: once accustomed to a certain modicum of respect and even reverence, now she’s relegated to performing for herself in her back yard. She’s peculiar and sometimes alarming, but for Ben, her large house, cluttered with books and papers and memorabilia from a seemingly exciting career, is increasingly preferable to his own airless household.
Intermittently during her grand performances for Ben, Evie also reveals hints of her physical frailty, underlined by her fears of aging and declining health. Ben sees in her occasional displays of weakness a chance to help, a way he might be useful, and so he spends more and more time with the energetic Evie, and less driving his mother to her appointments (much to his mother’s expected consternation). When Evie is invited to give a reading at the Edinburgh Festival, she is at first swept up by the belief that her celebrity remains intact; the fact that she’s best remembered by contemporary audiences for playing a caricature in a campy TV soap gives her pause, but she also has faith, at least at first, in her talent. And so she rents a car and tricks Ben in to driving her, first to a camping ground (where she swallows the key so he can’t get home to his mother) and then, on to the reading.
Ben’s “growing up” is delivered here in the most pedestrian terms — he learns to drive, of course, as he also takes responsibility for Evie (even as he comes to appreciate her courage) and even finds a way to lose his virginity with Bryony (Michelle Duncan), the pretty, apparently very bored 20something woman who greets Evie in Edinburgh. Their night out begins at a bar and eventually brings him to her bedroom, where he wakes the next morning, late for Evie’s performance and suddenly awash in self-recrimination and, good for him, self-realization.
At the same time that Ben is “finding himself,” his mother seeks her own outlets beyond her humdrum lover Peter (Oliver Milburn) and stultifying husband. Partly distracted by assembling a play about “Christ’s miracles” (with Peter cast as Christ and her son as a tree), she also finds her own elderly caricature in need of attention, Mr. Fincham (Jim Norton). Soon transformed into a rather hysterical replacement for her wandering son, the old man moves into the house, follows Laura about, and starts wearing outfits that match Laura’s. Claiming more than once that she likes to “help people,” but really, she’s only looking for reflections of herself. While it’s not unusual for a movie based on memories of adolescence to set up mom for a fall, the retaliatory abuse heaped on Laura is extreme.
On his return home from his road trip with Evie, Ben appears not to have learned a single “lesson.” He rejoins his mother, taking up his place on stage as a tree. The fact that he still needs saving — after an entire movie’s worth of instruction and rescue from assorted women — suggests that Ben is well on his way to becoming his father after all.