Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grint trades wizard lessons for 'Driving Lessons'

“The stars of the “Harry Potter” franchise will be set for life once the series completes its seven film arc. They will never have to work again, but if they choose to they will first need to get out from underneath the large shadow cast by the very films that made them famous.

The actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) will likely have difficulty avoiding type casting and forever being associated with their Hogwarts counterparts following the series’ conclusion. Radcliffe chose nudity on London’s West End in the play “Equus” to create distance from his screen wizardry. Grint has chosen something a bit tamer: the small coming of age film “Driving Lessons.”

Grint stars as Ben, a shy, repressed 17-year old stuck between a passive priest father (Nicholas Farrell) and a domineering, overzealous evangelical Christian mother (Laura Linney, “Breach”). Ben’s father has an open-minded, open-hearted view of faith and warns in a sermon that “the more someone parades their Christianity for the benefit of others the less I am inclined to trust the Christianity they claim.”

The comment is a subtle jab at his wife who uses her faith to manipulate others and justify her actions, even when those actions are pure hypocrisy. Linney, forcing a Brit accent, plays this well, with an ever joyous grin trying to mask and control other emotions.

Ben’s life has been so dominated by his mother’s will that he is almost afraid to develop an emotion beyond straight-faced apathy. He channels all his feeling and thoughts into brooding, visually rich poetry. When he tries to woo a girl with one of his poems he is shot down with a direct, “you’re just too weird.”

The film’s central plot and character thrust centers on Ben taking a job helping Evie (Julie Walters), a has-been actress with a slight drinking problem and a desire to go camping.

Walters, essentially playing a variation of her character from “Billy Elliot,” seems cursed to play foul mouthed over-the-top eccentrics. She does the role justice though chewing the scenery and giving speeches as if she were playing to the back of the theater. But she also downplays the flamboyant tendencies of a stage actress to show vulnerability and insecurity.

Ben becomes her only friend and the only person she can trust when a camping trip leads to a misadventure in Scotland where Evie is suppose to do a poetry reading. The trip marks Ben’s first deviance of his mother and the first time he allows himself to loosen up especially when a Scottish girl takes him dancing.

It could be easy to dismiss Grint’s performance as flat and lifeless, but Ben is someone who is learning to break out of his shell and trust himself. Ben never completely bursts out from his repressed nature, but Grint shines in the small moments of Ben letting go. Grint doesn’t show extraordinary range, but proves he can be more than a comedic sidekick.

There is a definite off-beat chemistry between Grint and Walters and he makes a good straight man to her antics. The screen dynamic that develops is that of friendship, but some will feel the need to compare the film to “Harold and Maude.”

All of this is well worn material and “Driving Lessons” doesn’t attempt to break new ground, but as far as light Brit comedy/drama goes it is a pleasant experience and for “Potter” fans it is the opportunity to see their beloved Ron in a different light.

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