We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Class struggle, unrequited love, postpunk standards, and the British education system in the 1980s: If you’re thinking that Starter for 10 resembles The History Boys, the two films do overlap here and there. But, as the credit for co-producer Tom Hanks suggests, director Tom Vaughan’s debut feature is lighter and sweeter. And while The History Boys was obviously based on a play, Starter for 10 is more like a sitcom, even if its source is a novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote the script). The likable tale revolves around Brian (James McAvoy), who arrives at Bristol University after growing up in unfashionable Essex. He’s introduced to the viewer through a series of auditions: first to get into college and then to join Bristol’s hapless University Challenge team. Perennial losers on the TV quiz show (Britain’s equivalent of College Bowl), the quizzers are led by prissy, uptight Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Prime Minister William Pitt in Amazing Grace). Although Brian soon proves himself a “general knowledge god,” he thinks the team’s MVP is Alice (Alice Eve), a sexy blonde who joined because she wants to be a movie star. She’s wrong for him, of course; he should be with Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a pretty if less glamorous Jewish schoolmate who’s always leading some kind of demonstration. Brian’s romantic epiphany is the film’s main event, though he must also come to accept the new boyfriend of his long-widowed mom and deal with childhood pal Spencer (Dominic Cooper), who resents Brian for abandoning his working-class roots. The movie stumbles over an implausible development every 20 minutes or so, and it has a few distractingly overt song cues; when Brian moves to kiss one woman while thinking of another, the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” begins. Starter for 10 is mostly engaging, though, thanks to McAvoy, who plays a character even younger and more naive than the one he did in The Last King of Scotland. Plus, the soundtrack makes mid-’80s Britain sound pretty smart.