The title will probably sail right over the heads of non-Brits — "starter for 10" is a catchphrase from the long-running BBC collegiate competition University Challenge. But anyone who's seen an American '80s teen comedy will know exactly where Scottish director Tom Vaughan's debut feature — a teen comedy set in 1980s England — is coming from.
Essex teenager Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) comes of age in Margaret Thatcher's England with fond memories of watching learned young scholars compete on the popular TV tournament University Challenge with his late father (James Gaddas), and a strong determination to become "clever" enough to one day go to university. But for a solidly working-class kid like Brian, his acceptance to the University of Bristol means more than just going to college: It also means leaving his mother (Catherine Tate) and best friend Spencer (THE HISTORY BOYS' Dominic Cooper), a street-smart tough resigned to remaining in Essex and "fiddling the dole" while working at an arcade on the sly. On his first night in Bristol, Brian attends a dreary "vicars and tarts" theme party where he meets Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), an earnest social activist who opens Brian's eyes to the evils of apartheid, nuclear proliferation and pornography. But Brian's true extracurricular passion is sparked by a flyer announcing upcoming auditions for University Challenge, and though he's one of only five students to show up for the trial exam, Brian barely makes the cut. He's beaten out for a spot by blonde, upper-class Londoner Alice (Alice Eve), whom he helped to cheat on the test, and is relegated to "first reserve." When an unlucky teammate is struck down by a bus, however, Brian becomes a full-fledged player. Under the supercilious guidance of snobbish grad student Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose dreary showing against Queen's College Cambridge in a prior Challenge hasn't prevented him from acting as this year's team captain, Brian prepares for Bristol's televised rematch against Queen's College while pursuing an even greater challenge: Alice, whom Brian woos while remaining stubbornly oblivious to the fact that Rebecca — an English Molly Ringwald reduced to the Jon Cryer role — is the perfect girl for him.
Based on television writer David Nicholls' popular first novel (published in the U.S. under the marginally less obscure title A Question of Attraction), Vaughn's light, well-played comedy looks back fondly through John Hughes/Amy Heckerling lenses, embracing the cliches it can't avoid while flaunting a few that should be laid to rest: that slow-mo shot of the pretty girl walking is at least as old as FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. While at times overly familiar, the film never feels self-mocking; Vaughn goes easy on the leg warmers and shoulder pads, using his soundtrack — crammed with tunes from the likes of The Smiths, Kate Bush and The Cure — to evoke a time when relationships were best expressed through analogue artifacts known as "mixed tapes." leave a comment --Ken Fox