Dir/scr: Jeremy Brock. UK. 2006.95mins.

Funny and tender enough to compensate for itslightweight, conventional core, DrivingLessons, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Jeremy Brock (Mrs Brown, Charlotte Gray) is a likeable HaroldAnd Maude rerun that is given a commercial leg-up by the canny casting ofthe three main roles. Harry Potterregular Rupert Grint guarantees international youthkudos and Laura Linney covers the US angle - but itis the no-holds-barred performance of Julie Walters as an eccentric, washed-upold British actress that really drives the film.

After its Tribeca debut, this coming-of-age-odd-couple hybrid nettedfour prizes at the Moscow International Film Festival, including the audienceaward (it also played Galway), and has sold in most major territories, withSony Pictures Classics nabbing US rights - presumably with more than half aneye on Walters' strong leftfield Oscar potential.

Reclusive, tetchy retiredstage actress Evie Walton (Walters) hires 17-year-oldBen Marshall (Grint) as a home help and general dogsbody. Her decadent, junk-strewn boudoir in the leafybut creative Londonsuburb of Hampstead is an eye-opener for the teen, whois used to the safe, neutral, desperately nice decor of his parents' fauxhalf-timbered house in reliably staid Finchley.

The Marshall household includes a weak-willedvicar father (Farrell), but its undisputed ruler is Ben's uptight, humourless mother Laura (a deliciously nasty, faultlesslyEnglish Laura Linney), who pursues Christian charityas if it were a business plan.

Ben is learning to drive,but the title-metaphor hints at his need to steer a course between two strongwomen: his bossy mother, with her Anglican fundamentalism, and Evie's much more attractive but equally brittle scandalousold lady act. Both of these female mentors reveal their moral shortcomings inthe course of the film as Ben learns to make emotional emergency stops andreverse around romantic corners.

As conflicted,poetry-scribbling Christian teenager Ben, Grint leapsat the chance to question the assumption that he has no career beyond playingRon Weasely in the Harry Potter franchise. It's an understated performance - there arefew of the trademark Weasely grimaces here - whichmight seem flat were it not for its nice interplay with Walters' full-on,wine-fuelled drama queen.

Peppy but unchallenging in Calendar Girls, Walters has been on holdsince at least Billy Elliot, but hereshe wrests the crabby old British spinster monopoly out of the hands of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

Brock takes a risk withtone, shifting gear continually from stand-up comedy and slapstick to pathos.The reductio ad absurdum ending, centringon a Christian youth group drama in which Ben plays a eucalyptus tree,challenges audience tolerance, but it's funny enough to get away with it.

Camerawork is more thanadequate for the genre; but the tech credits that really stand out here areproduction design and music. Amanda McArthur goes to town on Evie's suburban take on the Lady Of The Camelias,while folk legend John Renbourn and his young protege Clive Carroll provide a foot-jigging guitarsoundtrack that moves things along nicely, though there are times when itwallpapers over the on-screen drama too invasively.

Production company
Rubber Tree Plant Productions

International sales
ContentFilm International
Executive producers
Robert Jones
Edward R Pressman
Alessandro Camon

Julia Chasman

David Katznelson

Production design
Amanda McArthur

Trevor Waite

Clive Carroll
John Renbourn

Main cast
Rupert Grint
Julie Walters
Laura Linney
Michelle Duncan
Nicholas Farrell
Jim Norton