In 1985, against the backdrop of Thatcherism, Brian Jackson enrolls in the University of Bristol, a scholarship boy from seaside Essex with a love of knowledge for its own sake and a childhood spent watching "University Challenge," a college quiz show. At Bristol he tries out for the Challenge team and falls under the spell of Alice, a lovely blond with an extensive sexual past. He's smitten, and he carelessly manages to hurt the feelings of Rebecca Epstein, a friend whose politics and wit he admires. The Challenge finale is coming up; maybe Brian can redeem himself and still avoid being a prat. Written by
Director Tom Vaughan Writer David Nicholls Stars Ian Bonar, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Tate Certificate 12A Running time 96 minutes Country UK / USA Year 2006
Don't let the pathetically weak opening scene - a flashback of a university applicant as a boy, watching University Challenge and guessing the answers - put you off. Starter For Ten actually manages to get better. Although nominally about qualifying to be on the TV famous game show, the film is really a light-hearted coming-of-age drama set in the 80s. It has convincing performances and a lovingly recreated period of Thatcher Britain, when corduroy was cool and Kate Bush was for intellectuals.
Working class Brian was not born clever - he has to work at it. Gaining entry to a posh university, he meanders through undergraduate days with a classic dilemma: do you fall in love with the intellectually attractive brunette or the blonde goddess? Karl Marx, Freud and John Lennon, like smoking hash and learning how to do blowbacks, are all part of the social landscape of what is trendy and what isn't. Half way in, the film subject matter allows plenty of social commentary on the irksome British class divisions that penetrate romance, friendship and the University Challenge team.
Versatile Catherine Tate puts in an amiable performance as Brian's ever supportive and cooing mother: she's having an affair with the ice-cream van man ("you can hear him coming"). This enjoyable no-brainer of a movie is aided and abetted by a blistering 80s soundtrack with bands such as The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Yazoo, The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Undertones - and Kate Bush.
Starter for Ten is not searing drama, but it does make a pleasant and worthwhile trip down nostalgia lane. The characters are ones we can love and care about and the movie mostly avoids predictability and cheese. If "the most important questions in life are the ones we already know the answer to," and are not exactly rocket science, the subject matter of Starter For Ten is a welcome and unpretentious antidote to the plethora of similar American teen comedies. If you like the music, it's worth going for that alone.
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