You could probably fashion a film around most things provided you can create some form of excitement and interest. So if the obtaining of a driving licence may seem too trivial a topic to turn into an interesting film Licence to Drive proves otherwise. A lively narrative manages to explore every option this subject might suggest while also sticking to the tried and tested tropes of the US high school movie. The first half in particular - as sixteen year old Les Anderson takes his test and things go wrong - is incident packed and amusing in a sort of Eighties way. Apparently John Hughes was initially attached to the movie though it eventually enabled Greg Beeman, nowadays a well- known American TV producer, to make his feature film debut.
Like every other high school movie kid, Les Anderson wants to take his driving test as soon as he can because disposable income seems no problem for movie character. His aim is given added urgency when he spots the `perfect girl` whose name happens to be Mercedes. Like many before and since, Les thinks that because he can drive already the test will be a doddle however he fails the theory only to be put through to the practical due to a computer malfunction (which his reaction to failing caused!) and because his twin sister passed. BTW this would never, ever happen in real life. So he passes the practical only for his licence to be revoked when his true test results are discovered. In the end this proves no barrier when an unlikely date with Mercedes happens and he opts to take his grandfather’s Cadillac out for the night.
Ok so it doesn’t exactly sound amazing but the fun in this film is the rich array of amusing characters that pop up and the little details it offers. It could be a straight forward exercise yet both Beeman and script writer Neil Tolkin pick out the quirky, the eccentric and the melodramatic. The DMV sequences gift us two brilliant roes. Helen Hamft plays a hard faced examiner whose utterance of the sole profanity in the film is an unexpected laugh and whose shoes are unfeasibly heavy. She is fearsome. James Avery’s driving instructor has the stern demeanour of an Army drill officer leaving a full cup of coffee on the dashboard telling Les if he spills the drink he’ll fail the test. He chicks his scoring clipboard out of the car window. I’d have loved this to have gone on longer especially as they contrast it with the soft test Les’ sister receives. The funniest bit is comparing the spaces each of them is given to parallel park.
Les’ parents also provide some of the film’s funniest moments. Carol Kane is a slightly eccentric, heavily pregnant mother whose scenes are packed with comedic timing while Richard Masur is one of those fathers who wants to be cool and strict at the same time. The two of them together are worth watching this film for alone.
Corey Haim at this early point in his career was still bright enough on screen to carry a movie and here he proves to be a master of the reaction shot, a cheeky innocence that makes each decision he takes an agonising one. His response to the increasing damage the Cadillac sustains during the night is great. He’s matched up against the other Corey, Feldma, whose role in this film makes him seem an overly sleazy persona though I suppose he is a teenager. Heather Graham made her movie debut here and copes well with a role which is increasingly sidelined as matters progress. Its good though that despite her initial visual presentation as some sort of untouchable goddess, shot in soft filters with a breeze blowing even though she’s indoors- Mercedes is actually a bit out of control
As a director, Greg Beeman makes the most of a modest budget and also managing to find roads with sufficient length to run the film’s signature sequences. From the start he imbues a sense of fun with a fantasy sequence that sets the irreverent tone. He and his team do their best to make the vehicle sequences play strongly- this opening segment features a school bus and a huge explosion while there’s a very well judged sequence when Les persuades his father to let him borrow the car for `a couple of minutes`. The editing is sharp too, notably during Les’ driving test and that cup of coffee!
With a film like this you sort of know what will happen- that car will become more and more damaged as time elapses but where Beeman scores is in accentuating every bump, scratch, dent and scrape with heightened sound effects and cuts to Les’s reactions. The poor kid is taken though a whole series of incidents which mess up the prized vehicle culminating in its theft by a drunk. I love this scene- the kids are pursuing in the man’s tiny vehicle while he swings the Cadillac side to side as he sings along to Frank Sinatra’s `That’s Life`.
As well as apparently not being entirely accurate to US driving laws the film also contains some that aspects that sit less comfortably today. The fact that Mercedes spends a portion of the film in the boot of the car provides a couple of cool gags but seems wrong now (not to mention a bad example for the primarily juvenile audience at which the film is aimed). There is also one amazing faux pas involving the police with this situation that you just won’t believe. The trip to the burger hang out Archie’s Atomic seems an excuse to include roller skating waitresses and is the only sequence in the second half that feels forced and looks out of date.
Licence to Drive is a fun film that holds up fairly well considering it’s thirty two year vintage and well worth a watch. But just what is that stuff Mrs Anderson dishes out dollops of at the dining table?