Comparisons are awful, I know--especially when the writer-director has drawn from his own experience--but it was hard for me to watch "Driving Lessons" without thinking of it as "Driving Miss Daisy" meets "Lost in Translation," with Ron Weasley (I mean, Rupert Grint) in the sad-faced and stupefied Bill Murray role.
Grint plays the ultra-shy 17-year-old son of a good-but-boring vicar (Nicholas Farrell) and his do-gooder wife (Laura Linney), who's as self-righteous and domineering as it gets. She drags the boy along on all of her charity missions and has taken it upon herself to teach him how to drive, though he seems disinclined to listen to her. "Stop!" means, in the brain that he's detached long ago to insulate himself, "keep going right up onto the sidewalk." But even that doesn't seem to deter his ebullient mother, who bubbles like a brand-new convert while his father is so cold and distant that for the first portion of the film you're not even sure if he is the boy's father. The family has an odd dynamic that, unfortunately, first-time feature director Jeremy Brock doesn't explore nearly enough. Instead, Brock, who wrote the script based on his own experience working for British actress Peggy Ashcroft, concentrates on the boy's unlikely relationship with a washed-up old stage actress who calls herself "Dame."
Although the point-of-view character is Grint's, the film belongs to Julie Walters ("Billy Elliot"). Evie Walton (Walters) advertises in the "Hello Jesus" newspaper for an assistant--though it quickly becomes clear that what she really wants and needs is a companion. "Dame" Evie is one of those larger-than-life characters that expands to take over every conversation, every interaction with others, and (in the case of this film) every frame she's in. Played with relish and perfection by Walters, the vibrant and eccentric old woman makes young Ben laugh, think, and stretch to overcome some of his shyness. In no time at all she has him acting out various scenes with her and encouraging him in his poetry writing.
But Evie is also manipulative, even more so than Ben's mother, so in a sense he's traded one overbearing woman for another. How overbearing? Like his mother, Evie won't take "no" for an answer. Told by Ben that he can't go camping with her, she insists on simply going for a drive in the country. Then she sets up the tent. And then, when Ben says he must get home. "I can't possibly leave until I've eaten campfire food," she says, and promptly swallows the ignition key. Not to worry, she tells the boy. She's as regular as clockwork, and they shall have the key in the morning.
The film turns and the crisis comes when she tells Ben she's dying and he then insists that they go to a literary festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she's been invited to read several poems. And so Ben, lacking a license or even a qualified driver in the passenger seat, chauffers Miss Evie on a road trip that has them learning more about each other and gives Ben a "Lost in Translation" encounter with a young woman associated with the literary festival. This may have actually happened to writer-director Brock, but it seems highly unlikely that a young woman in her late teens/early twenties would take such an interest in the under-aged Ben that she would buy drinks for him at a club and woo him away from Dame Evie--just as it's a bit jarring near the end when a "reveal" lets us know the boy has suspected something about his mother's behavior all along, something that will lead to the break-up of their family.
"Driving Lessons" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The colors are relatively rich, the contrast is good, and there's only a slight graininess throughout. No complaints here.
The audio is another story. In the early going, background music is so loud that it's hard to hear the dialogue, while in other scenes the sound seems muffled, with nearly everything emanating from the front and center speakers, despite an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I had to crank the sound up just to be able to understand the characters' whispers, and I don't think it's all poor hearing due to all those concerts I attended in the '70s. Subtitles are in French, English (CC), and Spanish.
Like the film, a "making of" feature meanders along, with a lot of "real time" behind-the-scenes footage that shows the director, interestingly enough, looking as shy as his character. It's a pretty low-key feature that isn't as slick as these things usually are. There are also four deleted scenes and a blooper reel that isn't all that funny. It's more like, "Oh, I've made a mistake" after a long take, and then starting all over again--very businesslike, and not at all intended for our amusement.
All of the performances are very, very good, but it's too bad that Brock didn't spend more time developing the family relationships, because there are wonderful ironies that could have been explored. Some characters have so little flesh on them that they may as well be skeletons. An older boarder that Ben's mother has taken in plays a part in the film's resolution, and we know more about the flowers in Miss Evie's garden than we do about his character or the way things work inside the Vicar's household. What "Driving Lessons" does give us is a great March-December relationship on camera that's fun and refreshing to watch. "Driving Lessons" is rated PG-13 for "language, sexual content, and some thematic material," so if you have any Harry Potter fans in your family who want to see another side of Ron Weasley, be warned that, unlike Bill Murray's character, he does have a one-night-stand in a faraway city, and this underage fellow does take to wine very quickly.