Everybody in "Driving Lessons" is working very hard to show how affecting and touching their movie can be. Indeed, the collective effort invested in this ragged mongrel of a coming-of-age story may con even the most jaded moviegoer into thinking there's something profound being put forth. Forewarned, you may find it sweet enough to fill an empty afternoon.
Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the "Harry Potter" series) plays 17-year-old Ben, a British vicar's son who writes poetry while acceding to the wishes of his somewhat fanatical mother (Laura Linney). To help with household expenses and break the monotony of playing a tree in Mum's Bible class play, Ben answers an ad from a legendary actress named Evie (Julie Walters) seeking someone to do errands and tidy up her house.
Dame Evie turns out to be a salty number with mood swings as flamboyant as her wardrobe. As you figure, she's just the saucy old gal to pull our brooding, nerdy hero out of his shell, and she does: forcing him on an impromptu camping trip that turns into a road trip to an Edinburgh poetry reading. By the time he comes home to his infuriated mother and his diffident dad, Ben knows it's back to playing a tree unless Evie can save him.
Writer and director Jeremy Brock's tale is semiautobiographical. (He too was a vicar's son who worked as a teen for a famous actress, in his case Peggy Ashcroft.) You'd think such real-life connections would inspire Brock, who co-wrote "The Last King of Scotland," to bring more edge and grit to his movie. Instead, "Driving Lessons" follows the well-worn path laid down by other, better movies while making strained, ludicrous things happen toward the end.
The material forces Grint to overplay the mope act and Walters to overplay, period. Linney heroically applies shading to a devout monster. But this is a movie in which the hero is declared a poet by the grande dame "because you understand the power of words." There's only so much even the best of actors can do with such puffiness.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, sexual content and some thematic material
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director-writer Jeremy Brock. Producer Julia Chasman. Director of photography David Katznelson. Editor Trevor Waite. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times