Inbetweeners star Simon Bird delivers an unexpectedly gentle portrait of a mother and her son with his directorial debut
Dir. Simon Bird. UK. 2019. 86 min
The directorial debut of The Inbetweeners star Simon Bird, Days Of The Bagnold Summer is an unexpectedly gentle and pensive portrait of a strained relationship between a mother and a son. A distance has grown between divorcee Sue and her 15-year-old thrash metal obsessed son Daniel. When a long-awaited trip to visit his father and new stepmother in the US is cancelled at the last minute, Daniel and his mother face an uneasy six weeks together. Can the gap between them be bridged by sandwiches and shoe-shopping or is there no chance now of finding common ground?
A keen eye for the subtle stabs and small daily humiliations that gradually mount
The approach is scrupulously even-handed. The film is just as interested in mild-mannered Sue’s journey as it is in Daniel’s coming of age. The screenplay, adapted by Lisa Owens (Bird’s wife) from an award winning graphic novel by Joff Winterhart, is wryly low key, with a keen eye for the subtle stabs and small daily humiliations that gradually mount. This all makes for a film which is more mature and restrained than the broad comedies with which Bird has previously been associated. It may also mean that the picture will require more of a marketing push in order to connect with an audience – because of the shared the focus between a woman in her fifties and a boy in his teens, the target audience demographic is not immediately obvious. The presence in the cast of British comedy stalwarts like Alice Lowe and Rob Brydon should help.
Librarian Sue (a terrific performance from Monica Dolan) has filed away a lifetime’s worth of pain and disappointment behind a fluttery facade and a wardrobe of sensible knitwear. But to Daniel (Earl Cave, son of Nick Cave), she represents everything safe and conservative that he uses his music, which he melodramatically describes as “my religion”, to escape. They are so far at odds that it’s sometimes hard to squeeze them into the same shot. Bird emphasises the space between them – a forcefield with animosity at one end and incomprehension at the other. He carves up the frame with walls, doors and reflections to emphasis their emotional distance.
Daniel has one friend, the insufferably self-confident Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott) who views himself as a dandyish wit but all too frequently comes across as a braggart and a bully. Sue has an equally complicated relationship with Ky’s mother (Tamsin Grieg, accessorised with crystals and casual cruelty), a reiki practitioner with a decidedly unspiritual weakness for passive aggressive point scoring.
Dolan brilliantly captures Sue’s social anxiety; she practically vibrates with discomfort during an ill-fated date with Daniel’s history teacher (Rob Brydon). Cave has the more challenging role. Rejected by his father, Daniel’s character is an unapproachable combination of rage and inertia. But gradually we realise that he’s a child who is plunged into depression without the vocabulary or the life experience to navigate it.
The difference and distance between the two characters is emphasised throughout the film. It’s in the contrast between the inoffensive neutrality of Sue’s décor and Daniel’s glowering bedroom walls; the discord between the melodic Belle & Sebastian score and the volcanic bursts of Daniel’s death metal; even in the shot of a pair of gothic starlings perched on a cheery sign for a seaside amusement. The tension between them is such that when, finally, they find a small chink of understanding, it defuses the film, releasing the pent up pressure in a much-needed sigh of relief.
Production company: Stigma Films
International sales: Altitude Film Sales firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Matthew James Wilkinson
Screenplay: Lisa Owens, based on a graphic novel by Joff Winterhart
Cinematography: Simon Tindall
Editor: Ashley White
Production design: Lucie Red
Music: Belle & Sebastian
Main cast: Monica Dolan, Earl Cave, Rob Brydon, Alice Lowe, Tamsin Greig