Most of us who were raised in the ‘80s have a soft spot for the era. Sure, it was tacky but it embodied the nostalgic cheese of a time when Debbie Gibson was cool and acid-wash jeans were the thing to wear. Still, on occasion, something really special would sneak onto the spectrum—like, say, John Hughes. Where would we be without his classics such as The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty In Pink and Some Kind Of Wonderful?
It’s hard to imagine what movies would be like nowadays without his imprint; talk about a frightening thought. Instead, let’s count our blessings for his contributions and the great products he helped to inspire, including the recent crowd-pleasing delight, Starter For 10. Here is a film that feels like such a throwback to the time that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t brought forth in a time machine created by Doc Brown.
Starter For 10 stars James McAvoy as Brian Jackson, a pleasant but clueless working-class teen in 1985, who escapes his humble roots by enrolling at an upscale British University. He has the shy, creative vibe of Eric Stoltz’s character in Some Kind of Wonderful mixed with the earnest goofiness of the ‘80s-era Andrew McCarthy—he even has the same hair.
Brian tries to live up to his opening line, “Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be clever,” by competing to join the British TV quiz show, University Challenge. There, he meets blonde bombshell Alice (Alice Eve), a Christie Brinkley look-alike who cheats off his test, solidifying her spot on the team, while leaving Brian in the dust. But he doesn’t mind—he is on a mission to win her over, as well as a spot in the club lead by uber-determined weirdo Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Meanwhile, there is another girl in his life, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an attractive brown-haired political activist who he meets at a “Tarts & Vicars” dance. She is sassy, smart, fun and entirely unaware of how cool she is—which explains why she is charmed by the loveable dweeb, even if he’s too dazed by blondie to fully notice.
The setups for romantic comedies are all the same, so the magic relies on how well they're done. In the case of Starter For 10, written by David Nicholls and directed by Tom Vaughan, it’s done exceptionally well, mainly because Brian is very relatable: he’s cute without being too cute; smart without always making wise decisions; and sweet in a totally oblivious way. It works thanks to McAvoy (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe), an excellent up-and-coming talent who is on his way to replacing Ewan McGregor as the most huggable Scottish actor.
Starter For 10 resurrects the ‘80s with everything from the blast-from-the-past soundtrack (featuring tunes by The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Tears For Fears and The Smiths) and the time-specific set design, to the hilarious Brat Pack-like script. The characters have remarkable chemistry and they’re all given a pulse—even Alice, the girl we’re waiting for him to dump to be with Rebecca, gives Brian a hug on a date after he unintentionally sheds a few tears over his dead dad. That’s just the kind of smooth operator he is.
There is little room for nitpicking within Starter For 10. It’s an appealing period piece with a good handle on everything it tackles and, as an added bonus, performs some much-needed CPR on the flailing rom-com genre. People always complain that they don’t make movies like this anymore; thankfully, here’s an exception.