Using '80s nostalgia and the ever-reliable British love of embarrassment to maximum effect, Starter for Ten is that unusual coming-of-age comedy which manages to locate the occasional bit of funny amidst all the lesson-learning and overcoming of adversity. Also, the filmmakers know that, when in doubt about how to sonically ground scenes of awkward romantic longing and melancholy, round up as many songs by The Cure and The Smiths as possible. It just helps.
Fresh off playing unintentional best buddy to Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland
, the ever bright-eyed James McAvoy
stars here as Brian Jackson, a working-class kid from Essex who's always been on the bookish side -- he and his best mates' habit of listening to Motörhead and drinking lager in public notwithstanding. Out of high school, he scores a place at Bristol University, where, like any good freshman who never thought he'd get into college, he immediately sets to making a fool of himself in front of anybody who happens to be around. This includes the sullenly gorgeous, extremely political and scathingly sarcastic Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall
), set up as the dark horse romantic candidate in opposition to the front-runner, Alice, a peppy, rich, troublesome blonde with a tendency to take advantage of guys like Brian with puppy-love crushes. Article continues below
The motivation, slight as it is, that oddly powers all of this along, is a game show. Brian is a longtime fan of University Challenge, an excruciatingly difficult British version of College Bowl, and intends to get on the school team as a way of proving himself to the memory of his long-dead father (an opening scene shows the two of them watching the show when Brian was a child). The potential for mawkishness inherent in this premise should be well-nigh overwhelming (do it for ol' dad), but fortunately the filmmakers (director Tom Vaughn
is a first-timer) exercise a welcome amount of restraint once Brian finally gets his shot at getting on the Bristol team.
There's rarely much drama here as to whether or not Brian will be able to power through his many adversities (loving the wrong girl, showing his posh classmates that a poor Essex kid has what it takes, critical wardrobe mistakes), and it's not just because of the genre's optimistic requirements -- one just can't imagine anybody ultimately saying no for that long to McAvoy. The actor brings such a heady and comic mix of enthusiasm, vulnerability, and endearing intensity to his performance that it's hard to imagine anybody saying no to him for long. His costars are almost all as winning, especially the steely Hall, as well as Dominic Cooper
-- playing Spencer, Brian's roughneck best-friend from back home -- who utilizes the same blithely winning arrogance that helped him practically steal the show in the play and film of The History Boys
. He almost struts away with this bright and charming film; quite an achievement given how many others are in the process of trying to do the same.