This tender and safe dramedy about stripping off childhood’s training wheels prods Rupert Grint into taking his first baby steps away from Harry Potter’s shadow. (Four films into his education at Hogwarts, he’s the first to break away from the wizarding world with his first starring feature. Kind of.) In writer-director Jeremy Brock’s measured film, a Christian mother’s (Laura Linney) hypocritical piety smothers her son Ben until he’s as small and tidy as a bullet point on the résumé she’s making for God (and the neighbors). Grint’s once again paired up with Julie Walters (aka Mrs. Weasely), but instead of playing his mum, Walters is his mum’s worst nightmare: an ex-actress who hasn’t yet accepted the “ex.” Walters’ Evie Walten is headed straight for fire and brimstone—she cusses, drinks, lies, manipulates, blasphemes and thinks nothing of flipping society the bird.
When Ben’s mom pushes him to get a part-time job to help the family support an alcoholic drifter, Evie’s classified ad for a helper boy seems perfect—until he wanders into her backyard and is greeted by more expletives in two minutes than he’s heard in a decade and a half. Evie is frighteningly unstable, and Walters (all doddered up in old lady makeup) exalts in unleashing this posh madwoman, devouring the screen like it’s a caviar buffet. There’s little left for Rupert’s share of camera time, so his Ben nibbles around the frame like a timid mouse in the shadow of a lioness. As an actor, Rupert makes a great ragdoll; he doesn’t command attention, but all the same, his poochy, round-eyed features make you want to give him a squeeze. Evie takes to this dour seedling and determines to make him a man. If this were an edgier film—say, Harold and Maude—the path to manhood would run straight through her boudoir.
Brock plays innocent and keeps their relationship family-friendly (and Harry Potter fan-friendly) at platonic intimacy with nothing more scandalous than an open bottle of wine and a shared pup tent. Yet the impish tilt in Walters’ eyebrows suggests otherwise—they won’t sleep together, but damned if she can’t make him want to. In fact, though Brock scripted and shot the entire picture, the film continually feels like it’s rebelling against its own predestination. In just four scenes, the plot is foretold; the hugs and fights mapped out until the pat ending. That means Brock must throw in enough momentary curveballs so he can pretend they work as suspense. Largely, they don’t, and each single plot point feels forced, including Evie and Ben’s bestfriendsmanship (after such a full lifetime, she’s got no other hobbies?). Still, as the movie lingers pleasantly on, it’s clear that Brock subscribes to the new school of British Imperialism: crafting cozy little trifles that conquer foreigners with preciousness.