James McAvoy currently has the peculiar distinction of delivering a largely unheralded lead performance in a film (Last King Of Scotland) that's considered a lock to win Forest Whitaker an Academy Award for Best Actor. Though it's unlikely to win Oscars, the charming, Tom Hanks-produced British sleeper Starter For 10 proves a much better vehicle for McAvoy, who exudes the effortless likeability of a young John Cusack as a dreamy overachiever who rises from working-class roots to attend Bristol University.
Set in 1985 and packed with new-wave hits from the likes of The Cure and The Smiths, Starter For Ten is a beautifully observed coming-of-age story about McAvoy's attempts to navigate the tricky waters of university life while competing in an academic quiz challenge and wooing wealthy teammate Alice Eve. There's never any question about whether McAvoy will ultimately end up with the impossibly gorgeous Eve or sardonic Jewish intellectual Rebecca Hall, but Eve at least makes it a fair fight, imbuing what could easily have been a two-dimensional caricature of the unattainable dream girl with surprising depth and vulnerability.
Starter bears many of the hallmarks of teen comedies, but also boasts virtues not generally associated with the genre, such as wit, class consciousness, multidimensional characters, and a penetrating intelligence. In this lovingly executed adaptation of David Nicholls' novel, McAvoy falls in love with ideas as well as the beautiful young women who hold them. In one very funny, truthful sequence, McAvoy tries to school a self-destructive proletariat high-school friend (angsty History Boys standout Dominic Cooper) about the iniquities of capitalism by repeating verbatim bleeding-heart Socialist Hall's words on the subject. It's enormously refreshing to finally see a comedy about teenagers that subscribes to the revolutionary notion that college might somehow involve the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding in addition to the less high-minded but inevitable scramble for booze, drugs, and casual sex.