Starter for 10‘s insights aren’t earth-shattering, but coupled with a cast of likable, good-hearted characters, they turn into the sort of simple truths that can be very moving indeed. A perfectly unassuming coming-of-age comedy about learning to take chances, face up to your mistakes, and stick by your friends, the film leaves the realm of the pedestrian by filtering its lessons through its protagonist — blue-collar student Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), venturing into the urban wilderness of the University of Bristol — rather than delivering them via the screenplay as platitudes. Here’s proof that it’s possible to make crowd-pleasing, eminently commercial films that aren’t pandering or obnoxiously pushy.
The theme is University Challenge, the geeky, long-running British game show in which university teams vie for eternal glory in a trivia contest, with a trademark voiceover excitedly identifying each player who buzzes in by team and last name (in this case, “Bristol, Jackson!”). Despite the rather affectionate portrayal of the show in Starter for 10 — it’s the sort of endeavor that attracts its share of blowhards (most prominently the Bristol team captain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a wonderful performance) but is ultimately harmless and even kind of fun — University Challenge, perhaps predictably, winds up representing everything Brian has been doing wrong.
The movie has a light touch and an even temper. Scenes that could have deteriorated into tedious set pieces of wackiness — when Brian inevitably gets stoned, for instance — remain grounded and unobnoxious. Some characters are given quirks that in a lesser film would have defined them entirely, but here they give way to more interesting things: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), one of the love interests, is introduced as an obsessive activist, organizing demonstration after demonstration, and nine times out of ten this would have been the equivalent of painting an enormous bulls-eye on her ass. But her relationship with Brian is genuinely sweet, and her character reveals layers as the film proceeds. Similarly, Alice (Alice Eve), the other, more conventionally attractive love interest, turns out to be one of the most richly drawn bombshell characters I’ve seen in a while.
Brian, meanwhile, is a steadfastly positive presence, as kind and likable as he is dopey; the film leans heavily on the easygoing charm of James McAvoy, and he comes through despite playing well under his age. Best of all, Brian’s journey makes sense: the triumphant closing voiceover avoids the gag reflex that always accompanies irrelevant platitudes that disingenuously enter a film to shoehorn a moral before the credits roll. Brian is believable at the start of the film, and remains so until the end.
Then there’s the film’s version of University Challenge, which is responsible for a hilarious plot twist (I grabbed my head and laughed uncontrollably), one of the smarmiest performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing (all glory to Reuben-Henry Biggs), the film’s thematic underpinning (Looking for the Right Answer), and a glimpse into what I am made to understand is a venerable cultural institution across the pond. It’s largely the commercial hook for Starter for 10, but it only helps to cement the movie as one of the new year’s nicest surprises.