Seventeen-year-old Ben Marshall is the sensitive, poetry-writing son of complacent and emasculated Robert, a vicar obsessed with ornithology, and domineering overbearing mother Laura, whose strong religious beliefs lead her to perform numerous charitable acts while ignoring the emotional needs of her own family, such as forcing Ben to deliver meals on wheels despite his having no car. Her faith does not, however, hinder her from engaging in an affair with Peter, a young curate portraying Jesus Christ in the church pageant she is directing.
Notably Laura's religious side appears to be completely invented to simply bully her husband and son. Amongst Laura's many random and mean-spirited rulings she refuses to allow Ben to have a mobile phone (they cause cancer), refuses to allow him to hang around with people his own age and uses his driving lessons as a way to be ferried around for her affair with Peter, who appears unrepentant for sleeping with his mentor's wife. Miserable in his life, Ben writes poems for a girl, named Sarah, he knows from church. He decides to read his most recent "Sarah Poem" to her aloud, only to result in him being rebuked by Sarah. Before Sarah walks off in embarrassment, she tells him that he's "just too weird."
At his mother's urging he seeks summer employment, so that she can pay for the upkeep of a mental patient, named Mr. Fincham, she has adopted. Ben responds to an ad placed by Dame Evie Walton, an alcoholic, classically trained actress who was reduced to accepting a role on a daytime soap opera when her once flourishing career began to fade and who hasn't worked since the series ended, to her annoyance. In search of a companion to assist her in the house and drive her to various appointments, Evie immediately takes to Ben and offers him the position.
Ben's conservative upbringing hasn't prepared him for the adventures he begins to experience with his new employer. When Laura refuses to allow Ben to take a camping trip with Evie, she suggests they take a drive in the country instead, then "swallows" the car key when they find an idyllic spot for setting up a campsite. The following morning she announces she needs Ben to drive her to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she has been invited to read poetry. Their road trip proves to be an epiphany for Ben, who has his first sexual experience with Bryony, one of the young women organizing the event; learns the importance of accepting responsibility and honouring commitments; and finds the inner strength to stand up for himself and speak his mind.
Upon returning from the trip, Laura interrogates Ben as she labels Evie as "wicked" and believes she has "corrupted" him. However, when Evie comes to visit, she is rebuffed by Laura. Ben discovers this and in a fit of rebellion walks offstage in the pageant and goes for a bike ride over to Evie's house where the two friends reconcile.
Later Evie turns up at the Pageant and "portraying" the part of God manages to whip everyone up into a religious frenzy, allowing Ben to join her in the car park. Laura chases the pair and tries to weaponise the Bible once more, however Ben finally tells her to go away, seconds later Laura is run over by Mr. Fincham, whose mental state has steadily declined throughout the film. When Ben visits her at hospital she tells him her near death experience has made her a prophet and that God says she must have a divorce so that she can run off with Peter, whom the Bishop has fired; with him taking Laura to Cornwall to convalescence.
Angered at her lack of concern for either him or his father, Ben storms off. On his way out of the hospital he runs into Sarah who aimlessly prattles in a condescending tone on about how the affair was God's will. Finally pushed beyond endurance, Ben tells Sarah to "fuck off", taking her aback. Later, following Evie's advice, Ben buys himself a tent and moves into the backyard as a way to "get away from it all". When Robert speaks to him Ben shouts at him, telling him that he, not Laura, should have asked for divorce. Robert then reveals that he did. Startled, Ben listens to Robert explain that he loved his wife and had tried to be faithful even when she was not. Finally free from Laura's brand of Christian fanaticism, Ben and his father tell each other that they love each other.
Later Ben visits Evie to tell her he is moving to Edinburgh to attend university to study English. Evie is pleased for Ben and a little saddened that Ben shall no longer be working for her. Ben reads Evie a last poem expressing his gratitude for her friendship, for which Evie compliments him; saying that "it's him". Ben then promises to visit her whenever he's home from college and heads off.
The final scene of the film shows Ben, finally free, walking through the park on his way home to start packing for Edinburgh.Julie Walters as Evie Walton
Rupert Grint as Ben Marshall
Laura Linney as Laura Marshall
Nicholas Farrell as Robert Marshall
Michelle Duncan as Bryony
Tamsin Egerton as Sarah
Oliver Milburn as Peter
Jim Norton as Mr. Fincham
This is the second time that Julie Walters and Rupert Grint have worked together on a film; the first time was in the Harry Potter film franchise where Grint played Ron Weasley and Walters his mother Molly.
In Driving Lessons: Behind the Scenes, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, screenwriter/director Jeremy Brock reveals he was still making changes to his script during the rehearsal period, some five years after he completed his first draft. Although the film is not intended to be autobiographical, he was inspired to write it by his teen experience working one summer for Peggy Ashcroft.
It took six weeks to film the movie in the summer of 2005 and according to director Jeremy Brock the budget of the film was so small that it wouldn't be enough for the catering in Harry Potter.
The film was shot on location in the Tottenham, Hampstead and Parliament Hill areas of London, at locations including the Parliament Hill Lido and the nearby Holly Lodge Estate. Other locations included Edinburgh and Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire.
The soundtrack includes songs performed by Salsa Celtica, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, Ben Folds, and Ginny Clee.
The distributors were Tartan Films for the UK, Sony Pictures Classics for USA, Gateno Films in Peru, Cathay-Keris Films in Singapore, and Sunfilm Entertainment in Germany.
The film premiered at the Dublin Film Festival and was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Cannes Film Market, the Moscow Film Festival, and the Edinburgh Film Festival before going into limited release in the UK on 6 September 2006.
The other film festivals that the film premiered in were Festival of Rio, Dinard Festival of British Cinema, Rome Film Fest, Austin Film Festival, Festival Internacional de Cinema de Brasília, Gijón International Film Festival, 18th International Film Festival Emden-Norderney,Jerusalem Film Festival, Galway Film Festival, Seaward 15th Chichester Film Festival, and Film by the Sea Film Festival.
The film debut on 8 September 2006 in the United States in cities Los Angeles and New York. It later moved on to other big cities in the United States throughout the rest of the year. The film also premiered in Italy and Thailand in December 2006. In 2007 the film was released in other countries such as Canada, Portugal, Brazil, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore.
The film was released on 3 July 2007 on DVD in the United States.
The film holds a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 5.2, based on 75 reviews. The critical consensus states that "Though it has charm, Driving Lessons is a middling offering in the genre where the youngster coming of age meets a quirky senior who teaches valuable lessons about life."
Stephen Holden of The New York Times said the film "belongs to that hardy niche of British comedies designed as star vehicles for distinguished actresses (preferably Dames) of a certain age whose assignment is to win awards by devouring the scenery." He added, "The screwball ageing diva genre isn't the only formula guiding this stubbornly old-fashioned movie. Driving Lessons belongs to the silly feel-good mode of The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots and dozens of other celebrations of Britons defying convention to become 'free,' whatever that means. Since any connections between Driving Lessons and the real world are tangential at best, it's a faux liberation: the easiest kind."
Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle observed, "With the aid of a charmingly offbeat story and a jolly good dialect coach, the stars leave you thinking, well done. Their spirited performances help cover up glaring holes in the plot. Whenever Driving Lessons threatens to get off course, Walters . . . steers it in her direction. She doesn't so much steal the movie as borrow it for extended periods and return it with the motor purring."
Gene Seymour of Newsday said, "Everybody in Driving Lessons is working very hard to show how affecting and touching their movie can be. Indeed, the collective effort invested in this ragged mongrel of a coming-of-age story may con even the most jaded moviegoer into thinking there's something profound being put forth. Forewarned, you may find it sweet enough to fill an empty afternoon . . . Driving Lessons follows the well-worn path laid down by other, better movies while making strained, ludicrous things happen toward the end."
Ronnie Scheib of Variety said, "The forceful [performances] of the two main divas manage to more or less blast away the moral bulwarks of this otherwise conventional coming-of-age story. The fanatic gleam in Linney's eyes as she oh-so-sweetly lays down the law is matched only by the spectacle of her shuddering attempts to control her fury when thwarted. Walters chews up scenery in grand manner, nicely teetering between drunken helplessness and zesty hedonism. Grint, maintaining puppy-dog altruism, holds his own in the matriarchal maelstrom, redheadedly adorable to the end."
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film three out of five stars and commented, "The movie looks like a lot of other things: Driving Miss Daisy, Harold and Maude, Billy Elliot, Acorn Antiques. It doesn't quite develop its own identity. And it's somehow inevitable that Dame Evie's hilarious swearing and opinionating fade away as sentimentality takes over. But it's a great turn from Julie Walters, and a likable film."
The film earned $239,962 in the US and $990,633 in other markets for a total worldwide box office of $1,230,595.
At the 28th Moscow International Film Festival, Julie Walters won the Silver St. George for Best Actress and Jeremy Brock was awarded the Special Jury Prize. Walters was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy but lost to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.