A Pretty Decent Mix Tape
Starter for 10 / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | March 1, 2007 | Comments ()
There’s a lot to be said in favor of Starter for 10. Granted, there are more than a few things to say against it, too: It’s utterly predictable, even in its attempts to shake up the plot a little from the standard coming-of-age love rhombus that inevitably forms for many people at college; it’s aesthetically capable at best; there are a few extraneous characters and plot holes; etc. But I was won over despite all that, and in some small way because of it. Starter for 10 is a humble, modest film that sets out to be an emotionally honest story about a young boy dealing with life his freshman year at university, and it’s so relentlessly sweet-natured — but never saccharine — that all the technical gaffs couldn’t stop its quiet, strong heart from showing through. It makes total sense that the film was co-produced (along with HBO Films) by Tom Hanks’ Playtone, which he formed during That Thing You Do!, another sweet-souled look at growing up. In Starter for 10, the darks are never too dark, and the dangers are never too dangerous; for lack of a better term, it’s a nice movie, and a good one.
The film opens with the hoariest trope imaginable for a movie like this one: Earnest narration from the eager young protagonist, in this case the 18-year-old Essex resident Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), who recounts a youth spent watching quiz shows with his father, including longtime U.K. program “University Challenge.” Young Brian was never the quickest kid, he says, and he knew he’d have to work hard if he wanted to move beyond what smarts he had and truly get an education. At this point Brian’s narration ends to reveal he’s been talking to the admissions board at the University of Bristol, which goes a long way toward redeeming the narration by giving it a sensible purpose. The board likes him, even if he’s a little overeager and odd — hey, he’s 18 — and he gets accepted to the university. Brian has one last night in town drinking with his buddies, the prototypical leather-clad hood Spencer (Dominic Cooper) and husky clown Tone (James Corden). In one of the film’s attempts to play up the importance of music in Brian’s life, Spencer makes him a mix tape (aw), but there must have been some licensing issues with mentioning the names of any specific bands, since all Brian can do is point at the track list and make happy faces. The tape, along with Tone’s boombox, are a few of the visual clues provided by director Tom Vaughan to ground the story in its 1985 setting, and they work, though it takes a while. There’s not much screenwriter David Nicholls (working from his own novel) can do to establish the year aside from the music playing on the soundtrack and the fashions worn by the characters, especially the women. But then, the kind of angular synth-rock from 20 years ago sounds an awful lot like modern rock radio, and even some of the clothes, sadly, wouldn’t look too out of place today. However, Starter for 10 isn’t a broad parody or ’80s pastiche, and Vaughan knows enough not to overplay the one-shoulder sweaters and side ponytails.
Once at school, Brian meets The Two Women Who Will Define His Immediate Existence, and it’s clear from the get-go what will happen and how things will probably turn out. At a mixer his first night he meets Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), a thin, brunette, wry, almost caustic girl; Brian is mainly impressed that she’s Jewish, since he’s “never met a Jew before,” despite having mostly Jewish idols, like Woody Allen. Everything about the girl is serious, sexy, relatable: This is the girl who would be best for Brian, and as such, he’s destined not to be with her for a while, if ever. Sure enough, she walks away after their brief, awkward exchange. The next day, Brian goes out for the school’s “University Challenge” team, where he meets the second girl: Alice (Alice Eve), a toothy blonde of epic pulchritude who looks built by God to lead men like Brian to ruination. This, it barely needs to be said, will be the girl Brian goes after, if only because being 18 is about climbing the mountain just because it’s there. She even asks him to help her cheat on the team application quiz, and Brian — well, you knew he was going to help her.
Some of the film’s errors start to appear here: For instance, the boom mic dips into frame several times during the quiz team audition scene. It’s a distracting slip that punctures the narrative, but fortunately it only happens a few times. Still, it turns the film from low-key to bush league for a few moments. Anyway, Brian of course makes the team, and the film begins to unfold along pretty predictable parallel tracks as Brian grows more involved with school and finds himself becoming closer to both Alice and Rebecca. Brian is absolutely smitten with Alice, who, in a turn worthy of John Hughes-level theodicy, thinks he’s cute and interesting, too. He takes her out to dinner, and they’re both nervous, and a little awkward, and it’s just so damn cute that the film stops playing at emotion and unearths a few genuine moments of personal honesty. McAvoy and Eve have an easy chemistry, and are wonderfully believable as two twitterpated little freshmen. He walks her home, she gives him a kiss, and he does a little dance in the courtyard as the Cure’s “Pictures of You” swells on the soundtrack. Sure, it’s a minor anachronism — the song wasn’t released until 1989, on Disintegration — but it fits the mood so perfectly that the sin is easily forgiven. Vaughan also used “Boys Don’t Cry” when Brian was moving into his university flat, and peppers the soundtrack with Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and a few others that drive home the time period.
From there, things grow naturally more complicated, and Vaughan does a solid job at guiding his first feature through all the major stops on Brian’s road to self-discovery. Nicholls throws in a few very small twists late in the game, perhaps just to keep things from becoming too rote, but in a movie like this, what matters is what happens, not how it happens. A certain amount of betrayals of friendship and confessions of love are guaranteed. McAvoy brings a competent edge to the role and is utterly convincing as Brian, who undergoes a slow-burn transformation from beginning to end, and it’s to McAvoy’s credit that the changes aren’t overly broadcast but experienced.
Vaughan and Nicholls’ film isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but it’s suffused with the kind of goodness that can’t be faked. From the boy loves girls plot to the classic angst-ridden pop soundtrack, Starter for 10 feels like a worn but loved mix tape you probably inherited from your older brother. The film isn’t ashamed to wear its heart right on the sleeve of its Members Only jacket, and even if the film ends with a kiss and a crane shot as the music swells, it came by it honestly.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.