Simon Bird’s directorial debut feature is a gentle coming-of-ager that acts as love letter to single mums, introverts, suburbia and the great British summer. He directs from (his wife) Lisa Owens’ delicately written screenplay, adapted from Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel of the same name. The focus on the strained mother-and-son dynamic sets the film apart from the usual weirdo-kid movie we’ve seen before. It may bring to mind other debuts of note such as Richard Ayoade’s Submarine and Craig Roberts’ Just Jim, but the choice to give both characters’ stories equal billing results in a refreshingly sensitive depiction of a fiftysomething divorcée. In the purest way imaginable, this is a charming romcom about a mum and her son.
Director Simon Bird
Sue Monica Dolan
Daniel Earl Cave
UK distributor Altitude Releasing
Unlike the infamous lads in The Inbetweeners (the TV show written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris in which Bird made his name playing the put-upon Will Mackenzie), Bagnold’s Daniel (Earl Cave) is a shy, Metallica-obsessed teenager whose first love is heavy metal music. When his father cancels a much-anticipated summer visit to see him in Florida, Daniel is left in a state of depression with his devoted mother Sue (Monica Dolan) left to pick up the pieces.
Sue is a staunch historian and librarian who herself is a little stuck in the past. She’s undoubtedly passed on her loner genes to Daniel, and the pair have to learn to deal with their confidence issues in order to move on with their lives. Alice Lowe makes an appearance as sister to Sue, Rob Brydon as a suitor and Elliot Speller-Gillott plays the role of best friend to Daniel as if he’s channelling a hugely irritating Justin Hawkins from The Darkness.
Dolan is incredible in the role of a frustrated, hardworking woman and her performance hits quietly devastating notes. Cave’s understated yet stirring turn as a moody teen speaks to a universal experience that will have you shamefully picking through memories of your youth and cringing at nasty outbursts and ungrateful behaviour. Bird takes this archetype and layers it with affectionate warmth, which radiates from Cave’s face when he eventually starts to repay his mother’s efforts.
Bird neatly conveys their intermittent closeness and division with a blend of idyllic picture-postcard and melancholic images. Scenes of ice-cream vans atop park hills, rainy days spent indoors and spontaneous seaside excursions to Southend capture the very essence of British summertime. Belle & Sebastian’s pleasant cadence provides the majority of the soundtrack and Bird juxtaposes their soothing sounds with raucous heavy metal, but the reliance on montages to push the story forward is a tad indulgent.
Still, there’s a lot to admire in Bird’s precise attention to detail when it comes to the way he shoots the spaces these characters inhabit. He relishes the chintzy 70s decor of Sue’s house and luxuriates in the comforting book-lined corridors of the disappearing local library. It’s a promising first effort that emulates filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Elaine May and Hal Ashby in its fondness for awkward characters with moxie.