- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be clever,” Brian Jackson tells us at the beginning of “Starter for Ten.,” I want to know everything.”

Nothing is off-limits to young Brian. He wants to learn about the political philosophy of Plato. The scientific breakthroughs of Newton. “I want to know why people actually like jazz,” Brian says.

If you like Brian’s witty and winning voice, chances are you’ll like the British film “Starter for Ten.” It’s a charming piece of nostalgia that’s beautifully executed by its talented young cast.

James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”) plays Brian, who leaves his lower-class life behind in 1985 when he begins studies at the University of Bristol. However, even grueling classes aren’t enough to distract Brian from his real goal — to get on “University Challenge.”

The legendary British quiz show is like America’s “College Bowl.” It gives the film its title — answering “Challenge’s” first question correctly gets you 10 points — and its plot.

Brian overcomes some snobbery to make the Bristol team, but he still faces the condescension of Queens’ College Cambridge, Bristol’s competitor. Worse, he’s mired in his own prejudices, leading to conflict with his provincial family and friends as the boy from Essex learns to navigate the world.

Mr. McAvoy has more than enough talent to anchor a movie on his own. His Brian is appealingly enthusiastic and naive.

He proves a good comic actor here, but it’s Brian’s friends and family who garner most of the laughs.

Mother Julie (comedian Catherine Tate) has remarried (tying the knot with a Mister Whippy ice-cream truck driver), while Essex friends Tone and Spencer (James Corden and Dominic Cooper, two of the standouts from “The History Boys”) hope Brian won’t “become a wanker” now that he’s getting an education.

Brian, of course, becomes embarrassed by these representatives of his old life once he falls for teammate Alice (Alice Eve, “Stage Beauty”). She’s a rich blond with a pedigree and a foil to Brian’s other love interest — the Jewish student activist Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, “The Prestige”).

“Starter for Ten” is a period piece, and director Tom Vaughan, in his feature film debut, has captured the time perfectly. Viewers are carried along with a moody soundtrack featuring the best of ‘80s music, with the Buzzcocks, Kate Bush, the Smiths and no fewer than five songs by the Cure.

This coming-of-age story is a little predictable, as most are, but the lessons Brian learns — which don’t come from any book — are those of which we could all stand to be reminded.

***

TITLE: “Starter for Ten”

RATING: PG-13 (sexual content, language and a scene of drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Tom Vaughan. Written by David Nicholls based on his novel “A Question of Attraction.”

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: www.starterfor10.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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