Driving Lessons: Jeremy Brock’s Directing Debut, Starring Julie Walters and Laura Linney

For his feature directorial debut, Driving Lessons, Brit Jeremy Brock (better known until now as the writer of “Mrs. Brown” and co-writer of the current “The Last King of Scotland”) has constructed a contrived tale that posits “Harry Potter” sidekick Rupert Grint between two strong women (played by Julie Walters and Laura Linney), who fight over his identity and soul.

This is yet another coming-of-age tale, set during a summer vacation, about a boy who suffers from family repression, to which Brock adds the “new angle” of a personal relationship with an older, eccentric woman. If it sounds a bit like a Brit version of “Harold and Maude,” it is, though without the charm, poignancy, and romance of the 1970s cult picture.

As a writer, Brock’s specialty has been strong screen women, as evident in “Mrs. Brown” (Judi Dench), “Charlotte Gray” (Cate Blanchett) and now “Driving Lessons” (with two femmes as counter-balancing forces).

It’s therefore disappointing to see two uneven turns in the new film. One of the best actresses around, the usually reliable Laura Linney gives on of her few weak performances. She’s not only miscast, but her British accent is unconvincing and inconsistent. Making things worse is excessive acting of Julie Walters, who chews the scenery.

Ben (Grint) is a willing drudge for the devoted Christian work of his mother (Linney). He brings food to the elderly, performs in a church play, and dutifully sits down to dinner with his mother’s latest live-in charity, a cross-dresser, who just happened to run over his wife.

Ben feels sympathy for his vicar father (Nicholas Farrell), a well-meaning but ineffectual man, based on his suspicion that his driving lessons with his mother are just a cover-up of her affairs with a sexy New Age curate (Jim Norton).

The film’s premise is overly familiar: The shy, sensitive (he writes poetry) Ben can’t stand up to his domineering, over-protective mother. When she suggests that he gets a summer job, he dutifully obeys and takes a position as an assistant to “Dame” Evie Walton (Walters), an outrageous, boozy actress. Evie who opens his eyes to life, art and other rites-of-passage. Before long, she tricks Ben into a trip to Edinburgh, where he loses his virginity–and his job.

The battle over Ben’s soul recalls Jodi Foster’s first film, “Little Man Tate,” in which Foster’s birth mother and Dianne Wiest’s surrogate one fought over the talent and future of a young boy. The difference is that in this yarn, the boy is 17, but so passive he’s like a receptacle.

The screenplay is semi-autobiographical: As an adolescent, Brock, a vicar’ son himself, spent a summer with the great British actress, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. But it doesn’t help much. “Driving Lessons” is so formulaic and predictable that any trace of an authentic memory play is erased after the first sequence.

The forceful turns of the two grand dames can’t elevate this coming-of-age above the routine. We are never told what Evie’s life like outside of being a shrill eccentric. Pitting Linney’s Christian pageantry against Walters’ idiosyncratic excesses is entertaining up to a point, but Brick makes a mistake in building the tension up to a campy but fake showdown in a church.

Ben’s parents are denied a single scene that would have established what kind of relationship they have, so the father and marriage remain cipher (what keeps them together). As noted, Linney renders an uncompelling performance, going from one extreme to another; her effort to control her fury cal attention to her acting.

Walters chews up scenery in grand manner, vacillating between drunken states of helplessness and hedonistic zest for life. A former actress, Evie restlessly lurches around her unruly English home. At one point, she swallows a car key to provide a long night-camping scene where she talks to Ben about the “meaning of Life.” Walters’ shtick gets tiresome after the first act.

Meanwhile, playing an adolescent who’s desperate for self-fulfillment outside the clutches of his mom, Grint is stuck with a passive character. Still projecting his “Harry Potter” puppy-dog look, he tries in vain to hold his own against the two strong women. In the end, Grint comes across as bland and colorless, with a performance that relies heavily on physical gestures, such as rolling his eyes or flaring his nostrils.

Throughout the film, Ben is told how bright he is, but there is no evidence for that on screen. The script arranges for him to get laid with a pretty girl named Bryony (Michelle Duncan), though it’s not clear what exactly attracts her to him.

Shapeless, both narratively and artistically, this is yet another summer vacation yarn in which few ideas ring true and even fewer feel genuine. Calculated to the extreme, the movie is disrespectful to its charactersand its audiences. And it shamelessly sets up a case of terminal illness and a car accident for its central characters that register false and contrived.

This serio-comedy is very much in the mold of “The Full Monty,” “Billy Elliott,” “Calendar Girls,” and other British commercial schmaltz that’s mostly made for export, but also gives bad name to the unique British film industry, as we knew it.