- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

“How is a person truly free until he can think and act for himself?” the Rev. Robert Marshall asks in a sermon early in the film “Driving Lessons.”

That question serves as the theme for this sweet but thoughtful coming-of-age tale set in suburban London.

Minister’s son Ben Marshall (redheaded Rupert Grint of the “Harry Potter” films) is 17 years old, but his mother (Laura Linney) treats him like he’s 12. He’s failed his driving exam, but his overbearing mother refuses to let him take lessons from anyone but her.

When Laura Marshall urges her son to get a job, he seems happy to escape the house. He becomes a personal assistant to Evie Walton (Julie Walters), a has-been actress who hasn’t quite accepted her fate. Evie’s free-spiritedness — at one point, she practically kidnaps Ben on the way to an Edinburgh literary festival — lets Ben become his own man. But Evie has problems, too, including a love for the bottle. Can Ben balance the demands of these two increasingly needy mother figures?

A small movie like this stands or falls with its principals. Here, the chemistry between Miss Walters, one of Britain’s best veteran actresses (“Educating Rita,” “Billy Elliott”), and one of acting’s newest finds, Mr. Grint, is a delight. She plays his mother in the “Harry Potter” series. Those films were just a warm-up for what they accomplish here.

Miss Walters lights up the screen as a vibrant woman whose talents are no longer appreciated. Mr. Grint proves he can do a lot more than play second fiddle to a boy wizard. His Ben starts the film with a palpable sense of awkwardness that slowly dissolves as the story progresses. When Evie bursts into a long Shakespearean monologue, moving frantically around Ben, he can barely move in his discomfort. By the end of the scene, he’s trading lines with Evie, bringing the Bard to life with almost as much skill as she.

Jeremy Brock (co-writer of “The Last King of Scotland”) attracted a great cast for his directorial debut, which benefits from his own sharply observed screenplay. There are great lines, as when Evie says, “Middle classes are the engine that run England. It’s their parents I can’t stand.”

More important is the light touch he brings to the film’s religious themes. Miss Linney is delicious as one of those types who believes God approves of everything they do. “Whatever happens behind these walls, Ben, we’re God’s ambassadors,” she tells her son. But sometimes, God doesn’t use very good ambassadors.

**1/2

TITLE: “Driving Lessons”

RATING: PG-13 (language, sexual content and some thematic material)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jeremy Brock

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/

drivinglessons

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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