Brainy, working-class Brit copes with books and girls on campus

Posted: March 16, 2007

If The History Boys were mashed up in a John Hughes retrospective, and the music were wall-to-wall '80s Brit rock (the Cure, Tears for Fears, Buzzcocks), and the dashing young costar of The Last King of Scotland - James McAvoy - were onboard, well, there you have Starter for 10.

Taking its title from an oft-used phrase on a U.K. game show called University Challenge, this coming-of-age lark centers on Brian Jackson (McAvoy), a working-class kid from a working-class town who grew up watching the aforementioned brainiac quiz program. He'd sit there with his mum and dad and yelp back the answers - on science, literature, music, history - before the contestants could.

Now, his dad is dead, his mates hang out at the video arcade, and Brian has gained entry into Bristol University - not the haughty halls of academe that the titular teens of The History Boys had their sights on, but a strenuous, serious school nonetheless. In Brian's first week, he's exposed to cross-dressing dorm mates, meets a smart, sexy political-activist student, Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), and an upper-crust bombshell, Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve). The latter, as it happens, is on Bristol's University Challenge team - a team Brian just manages to join.

Written by David Nicholls, adapting his own novel, and directed by Tom Vaughan, a British TV veteran making his feature debut, Starter for 10 clips along smartly.

Brian struggles to cope with the pressures of university, his infatuation with the coy, calculating Alice, his friendship with the witty, ironic Rebecca, the mounting competition for the University Challenge finals and a visit by his best pal from back home (Dominic Cooper, reprising his slick and shady shtick from, yes, The History Boys).

McAvoy is charismatic, funny, and on the mark. Hall and Eve are both just right in their roles - bringing depth and detail to what could have been caricature parts. And if Starter for 10 takes a turn into foolhardy tragedy, it doesn't linger too long there. Redemption is at hand. Like the Cure say, or sing, "Boys Don't Cry."

Well, sometimes they do, just a bit.

Starter for 10 *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Pippa Harris, directed by Tom Vaughan, written by David Nicholls, based on his novel, photography by Ashley Rowe, music by various artists, distributed by Picturehouse.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Brian Jackson..............James McAvoy

Rebecca Epstein. . . Rebecca Hall

Alice Harbinson. . . Alice Eve

Spencer.................... Dominic Cooper

Julie Jackson. . . Catherine Tate

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, drugs and rock-and-roll)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Ritz Sixteen/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or

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