Tuesday 15 October 2019

DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER - London Film Festival review

The directorial debut of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner star Simon Bird, Days of the Bagnold Summer stars Monica Dolan and Earl Cave as a mother and son navigating their way through the summer holidays in British suburbia when the six week holiday Daniel was supposed to be spending with his father is abruptly cancelled.

Based on Joff Winterhart's 2012 graphic novel of the same name, Days of the Bagnold Summer has a similar narrative drive and tone to a Daniel Clowes book, just stripped of any exoticism you might get from an American setting and instead set in a typically boring, beige British suburbia. There's a popular strain of teenage graphic novels at the moment, including Charles Forsman's The End of the Fxxking World, that are having successful adaptations into live action. For all intents and purposes they're just like the dystopian YA novels that have birthed film franchises like Hunger Games and Divergent, but with much lower stakes and lead by pasty, socially awkward main characters. Much more relatable, don't you think?

Daniel is one of those kind of characters who, for all his supposed teenage rebellion, is crushingly normal in a way that is wholly relatable. Unlike other graphic novel characters who've made the jump to the big screen, He's never as confident as Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw or verbose as American Splendor's Harvey Pekar, but there's something about his characterisation that reminds of those characters. Neither cartoony or a normcore charicature, he's well drawn, and not just in ink. Brought to life by Earl Cave (son of musician Nick), Daniel is a moody 16 year old with long, lank hair and a Metallica hoody, just like you'd see hanging out on the corner of any suburban cul-de-sac. Quiet, shy and awkward, he says mean, passive aggressive things to his mother basically out of teenage duty to rebellion, something that he hopes to express better by starting his own metal band. As his mother Sue, Monica Dolan is simply fantastic. Trapped in a fashion time-warp that's ageing her beyond her years, she's an adorably kind natured person hoping to find a piece of happiness for herself, and Daniel. With Daniel's father out of the picture starting a new family in Florida, Sue has devoted the last few years to raising Daniel and put her own happiness on the back burner, but when Daniel's smooth talking teacher (Rob Brydon) asks her out on a date, maybe the summer won't be a complete loss after all.

I wasn't aware of the original graphic novel before seeing the film, the main draw being the potential of something great offered by director Simon Bird, AKA Will from The Inbetweeners, in what is his first directorial offering. Best known as a performer (but also the co-writer of the short lived sitcom Chickens), the characters Bird plays tend to display a sort of 'switched on' savvy nature that probably doesn't veer too far away from the man himself. With a script written by Lisa Owens adapted from the original book, it's perhaps a surprise at first that there's no characters here that could be comparable to Will Mackenzie or his friends, but it's ultimately a strength that the film hasn't tried to be a clone of something that came before it. Sure, the basic genus of the film means there's comparisons to be made from other graphic novel adaptations and Bird himself has stated that Richard Ayoade's excellent Submarine is among his cinematic influences, but any DNA this shares with other off kilter teen movies stops when we reach the character of Sue. She is as equally important to the film as Daniel is, and makes for a compelling, if unlikely, character to root for.

There's a large percentage of the story devoted to both Bagnold's doing their own thing whilst trying to find themselves over the summer, but the film is at its best when the two leads are together. Bird manages to capture the unspoken bond between Daniel and his mum, most notably during the highlight of the film when they both enjoy a family trip to the seaside that manages to be impossibly sweet without them saying to each other much at all.

On paper, both written down and drawn,  Daniel could quite easily have been a petulant Kevin and Perry clone, but Cave, best known for his brief but memorable appearance as Frodo in the TV adaptation of The End of the Fxxking World, gives Daniel a lot of warmth and heart, making him a real underdog you want to see succeed. However, it's safe to say that the real star of the show is Monica Dolan as the unassuming Sue, who makes your heart bleed for every typically normal suburban single mum out there trying their hardest for their kids without much fanfare or appreciation from their offspring. This isn't a film with dramatic confrontations or bombastic moments, but Dolan packs so much emotion into little looks and pauses that you'll want to ring your mum as soon as you finish the film and apologise for being a rotten little teenager.

A love letter to every boring suburban summer you had growing up, Days of the Bagnold Summer is an understated joy to watch.

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