As a scriptwriter, Jeremy Brock (“Mrs. Brown,” “Charlotte Gray”) gravitates toward strong women and, in his directorial debut, sandwiches “Harry Potter” sidekick Rupert Grint between two mother figures (Julie Walters and Laura Linney, both thesping up a storm) whose respective excesses morally balance each other. Pic relies on chemistry that fairly crackles between the principals to successfully deliver its teen hero from familial repression and rescue its pubescent lead from child-star roles. Basically conservative yet titillatingly “eccentric” British laffer could succeed in the “Full Monty” import slot.
Ben (Grint), a willing drudge for mother Laura’s (Linney) indefatigable Christian works, dutifully brings food to elderly shut-ins, patiently performs in the church play or resignedly sits down to dinner with his mother’s latest live-in charity case, a silent, wide-eyed old cross-dresser who just ran over his wife.
Ben empathizes with his henpecked vicar father (Nicholas Farrell), especially since he suspects his driving lessons with his mother serve as cover for her trysts with the sexy New Age curate (Jim Norton). But the shy, poetry-writing 17-year-old has no defense against his mother’s implacable will.
Following up on mum’s smiling suggestion that he get a summer job, Ben takes a position with self-proclaimed “Dame” Evie Walton (Walters), an outrageous over-the-hill actress. Evie tricks Ben into an unauthorized excursion to Edinburgh, where he loses his virginity and his job. A battle for Ben’s soul ensues, pitting the Linney character’s Christian pageantry against the Walters character’s full-blown melodrama in a high camp church showdown.
The fact that the script is quasi-autobiographical (as an adolescent, vicar’s son Brock spent a summer with Dame Peggy Ashcroft) can’t mitigate its predictability. On the other hand, the forceful perfs of the two main divas manage to more or less blast away the moral bulwarks of this otherwise conventional coming-of-age story.
The fanatic gleam in Linney’s eyes as she oh-so-sweetly lays down the law is matched only by the spectacle of her shuddering attempts to control her fury when thwarted. Walters chews up scenery in grand manner, nicely teetering between drunken helplessness and zesty hedonism. Grint, maintaining puppy-dog altruism, holds his own in the matriarchal maelstrom, redheadedly adorable to the end.
Tech credits are solid.