James McAvoy as Brian Jackson
Rebecca Hall as Rebecca Epstein
Alice Eve as Alice Harbinson
Dominic Cooper as Spencer
Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick
Directed by Tom Vaughan
British youth comedy breaks the mold with smart, sensitive characters and sincere storytelling.
A young man in 1980s England pursues academic glory only to discover that knowledge can be fickle and life comes full of endless complications that cannot be researched in text books.
With wide eyes and ample enthusiasm, Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) embarks on a quest for knowledge, a journey to college where he believes ultimate wisdom can be ascertained. Unfortunately for him, the local university is more of a playground than an academic institution. Upon his arrival, his hard-partying roommates thrust him into the social scene and coax him into buying drinks. There, he encounters Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), a bold, witty pseudo-revolutionary who sparks his interest and causes him to embarrass himself. From day one, it is clear that his intellectual ambitions are destined to be bruised by booze and desperation.
With high hopes still intact, he pursues his interests in education by inquiring about the university trivia team. We learn early in the film that Brian and his now deceased dad once bonded over trivia tidbits and a college student quiz show called "University Challenge." Should Brian and his team prove themselves capable, they will be allowed to compete in a nationally broadcast episode of the series. Within mere seconds, though, Brian finds himself beguiled by the flirty, blonde Alice (Alice Eve) and compromises his integrity in an effort to impress the young temptress.
Brian's many missteps and bad decisions serve as the crux of this delightfully earthy and uninhibited film. Though it bears traces of the blueprints for both the teen comedy and coming of age genres, "Starter for 10" works its own subtle magic, stretching its cookie-cutter characters into more inventive and exciting individuals. Brian might be the leading man in this movie, but he is far from the standard romantic comedy charmer. When he tries to strike up cinematic tussle in the leaves with the beautiful Alice, she objects on the grounds that there might be dog poo buried beneath the foliage. These types of uncomfortably honest portrayals of young love's toll on the ego embody the keen practicality of the film. This is not a glossy, barely human farce comedy. The humor here emerges naturally from the awkward and vulnerable characters that populate the story.
After getting overshadowed by Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland," James McAvoy takes center stage here with a nimble, natural performance that beautifully navigates both the humor and sincerity of the film. He captures the innocence of Brian but still keeps him believably salty and mildly profane. It is the rare role in which the "good guy" can oftentimes be a despicable louse, forcing McAvoy to express the uncomfortable, desperate motivations for his misbehaviors. It is a pleasure to watch his face as it swells with joy or sinks slightly with sorrow. He is such a wonderfully understated performer that in the one scene where he does shed tears, he also goes out of his way to show Brian's frantic attempts to wipe them away. No college aged male wants to be caught crying on a first date and the effort to capture both Brian's sadness and embarrassment is admirable.
McAvoy is supported in the film by a fine acting ensemble, most notably Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall, the two female leads. Hall is a sparkling young starlet who first caught my attention playing Christian Bale's wife in "The Prestige." There she captured the same authenticity that she does here. She makes her characters seem comfortable in their own skin. They have flaws and affectations, but her assuredness convinces you that this is an actual human being rather than a scripted concoction. This works especially well in a film as predictable as this one. You can sense a familiarity about each scene and every character, but the scripted genius and earnest performances by people like Hall make you believe every second of cliché. The same goes for Alice Eve who is given the daunting task of transforming the token blonde into something more interesting. She succeeds in creating a character that is more than a beautiful waif preying on the male characters of the film. She is smart, refined, and endearingly delicate
Director Tom Vaughan delivers a nice low-key look and feel to the movie. His casual, unpolished visual style is much more akin to modestly budgeted independent cinema than to the mainstream romantic comedy flicks to which this will likely be compared. This is really a well-rounded look at college life that both resonates dramatically and harnesses its potential for slapstick fun. Vaughan keeps things light enough to prevent the film from drowning in melodrama but never lets the whimsy destroy the dramatic integrity of his story and its characters. The film might be operating within the bounds of a formula, but Vaughan's clever balance of tone and screenwriter David Nichols' wise words make this an exceptional example of exceeding expectations. Less creative minds would have settled for a by the book comedy, but this one comes with a vibrant effervescence that lets it reach beyond its borders and become something special.
The Bottom Line:
Cynics may feel pressed to burst this movie's bubble, but it is truly a warm and funny slice of John Hughes-esque seriocomic youth cinema.