Brian Jackson always wanted to be “clever,” which is how they say “intelligent” in England. As a boy he faithfully watched “University Challenge” (which is how they say “College Bowl” in England; it’s the no-frills TV quiz show for students), eager to learn as much as he could and to answer as many questions as his little brain would allow.
In “Starter for 10,” a pleasant and funny coming-of-age film that takes its title from a “University Challenge” catchphrase, Brian (James McAvoy) is a working-class boy lucky enough to be accepted into the University of Bristol in the fall of 1985. Other students have money or connections, but Brian has gotten in solely on his initiative and academic performance. What will a humble lad from a seaside town learn about himself when he’s out on his own for the first time?
Meek, inquisitive, and not a little nerdy with his shaggy hair and oversize glasses, Brian has hometown friends with low ambitions who wonder what will become of their pal once he’s college-educated. “You’re not gonna get all poncey, start saying ‘One does,’ wearing a cloak, talking Latin, are you?” asks Tone (James Corden), the heavy-metallist. The other, Spencer (Dominic Cooper), Brian’s best mate, eventually comes to Bristol for a fateful visit, to see for himself whether Brian has changed for better or worse.
Brian immediately tries out for the school’s “University Challenge” team, captained by officious prat Patrick (a very funny Benedict Cumberbatch), who remains in charge despite having led the team to ruin in recent years. Brian is smitten with Alice (Alice Eve), a lovely blond girl who makes the team only by cribbing answers from Brian during the qualifying exam. Brian doesn’t mind, though, for Alice is beautiful, and nice to him, and apparently not all that hard to sleep with.
Elsewhere, he meets Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an avid political and social activist who is bemused by Brian’s awkwardness and timidity. She becomes a recurring theme in his life, somehow present for most of his triumphs and failures, and always a witness to his most embarrassing moments.
It becomes clear about halfway through which girl he’ll wind up with (both seem like good candidates at first), but Brian continues to make the wrong choices concerning them — all to our nodding, smiling amusement. We have been there ourselves: new to adulthood, eager to prove ourselves, and completely incompetent when it comes to love.
With a vintage mid-’80s Cure and Morrissey soundtrack and upbeat direction by Tom Vaughan (working from a script by David Nicholls, adapting his own novel), “Starter for 10” feels like the British version of a John Hughes teen comedy, with James McAvoy (recently of “The Last King of Scotland”) giving a much deeper performance than you’d expect. There’s nothing particularly insightful or brilliant about the film, but its charm and good humor take it a long way.
B (1 hr., 36 min.; )