'Days of the Bagnold Summer': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
Bittersweet Brit-com relies too heavily on tired stereotypes.

Monica Dolan and Earl Cave star as mother and son in Simon Bird's directorial debut, based on Joff Winterhart's graphic novel.

British TV graduate Simon Bird makes a tepidly tentative big-screen debut with Days of the Bagnold Summer, an amiable but slight adaptation of Joff Winterhart's well-received 2012 graphic novel. Focusing on the fundamentally loving if frequently strained between a middle-aged divorcee and her surly teen son, the sour-tinged comedy of excruciatingly English embarrassment deploys some talented performers on both sides of the camera but its promising parts never quite cohere into a properly satisfying whole. And while the picture's exploitable elements may eke out some pennies on its U.K. release, there's a small-screen feel to proceedings that indicates a future largely confined to streaming platforms.

Best known as one of the three recurring leads on Channel 4's smash youth-oriented show The Inbetweeners (2008-10) and then two lucrative feature films based on the same characters, Bird now collaborates with his wife Lisa Owens to relate six semi-eventful weeks in the life of mousy librarian Sue (Monica Dolan) and her 16-year-old offspring Daniel (Earl Cave, son of Nick). The pair find themselves unexpectedly stuck with each other's company for the duration of the high-school holidays when Daniel's long-planned trip to spend the season with his remarried father in Florida is cancelled at the last minute.

Over the course of three "chapters" ("Early Days," "Salad Days," "Dog Days") plus a shorter coda ("These Days"), Sue and Daniel bicker their way through life and endure various mishaps of a mostly minor nature. Long something of a wallflower, Sue impulsively embarks on a potential romance with Daniel's history teacher (Rob Brydon); her various woes receive sympathetic hearing from her more worldly sister (Alice Lowe) and a hippie-ish neighbor (Tamsin Greig). Daniel, meanwhile, lazily explores his musical ambitions in tandem with his best pal Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), with predictably problematic results.

Low on genuine incident, Days of the Bagnold Summer is instead largely character-driven — but despite the best efforts of the cast, these characters are essentially over-familiar stereotypes heavily redolent of Brit sitcoms from decades past. And while a graphic novel can perhaps get away with two-dimensionality in this regard, a film requires more fleshing out. In a similar vein, the pic is strangely and strenuously non-specific in terms of detail: Proceedings occur in a small bubble upon which the wider world simply never impinges.

The south-of-England location is blandly generic — when Sue and Daniel go on an ill-advised trip to the seaside, Owens' screenplay takes elaborate pains to avoid actually stating their name of their destination. What we do see of Sue and Daniel's urban surroundings exudes a strongly Americanized vibe — shopping malls and fast-food joints — but the picture makes little of the idea that what Daniel might have encountered in Florida probably wouldn't have been drastically different from what he was used to at home (this is that very rare British summer dominated by bright, sunny weather).

The most distinctly U.K.-flavored aspect of the production is a suite of newly written songs by cult-adored Scottish popsters Belle and Sebastian, long noted for their fey melodies that conceal a surprisingly sharp edge. (This is the combo's third such soundtrack, following 2001's Storytelling and 2014's God Help the Girl.) The Glasgow band boasts plenty of admirers at home and further afield, Bird likewise, and the Nick Cave connection certainly provides a further boost to Days of the Bagnold Summer's visibility.

But Cave isn't just his father's son: He convincingly embodies a certain type of nihilistic, misunderstood-teen anomie; a steadily-rising late bloomer on British stage and small screen, Dolan recalls Mike Leigh regulars such as Brenda Blethyn and Imelda Staunton, sometimes hovering on the edge of genuine emotional extremity that the picture itself seems uncertain how to deal with. Seasoned comic performers Brydon, Grieg and Lowe milk laughs in their more limited screen time, with Lowe (as usual) providing exceptionally good value.

Production company: Stigma Films
Cast: Earl Cave, Monica Dolan, Elliot Speller-Gillott, Alice Lowe, Tamsin Greig, Rob Brydon
Director: Simon Bird
Screenwriter: Lisa Owens (based on the graphic novel by Joff Winterhart)
Producer: Matthew James Wilkinson
Cinematographer: Simon Tindall
Production designer: Lucie Red
Editor: Ashley White
Score: Belle & Sebastian
Casting directors: Sally McCleery, Robert Sterne
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Altitude, London

86 minutes