Actor and comedian Simon Bird makes his directorial debut with a coming of age comedy portraying a piece of sleepy British suburbia during one quiet summer. Going down the coming of age route has been fruitful ground for many directorial debuts, most recently the likes of Lady Bird and Boomskart come to mind. It makes sense, they’re stories that offer many a way for both filmmakers and audiences to connect through a sense of shared experience. This particular tale based on a graphic novel by Joff Winterhart is not a particularly distinctive tale, but it is a sweet one nonetheless.
The film follows timid Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) and her heavy metal loving teenage son Daniel (Earl Cave). When Daniel’s planned summer trip to visit his estranged father in Florida gets cancelled, Sue and Daniel find themselves having to spend the summer together. As the long six weeks unfurl, their disconnected dynamic and petty bickering soon begins to fall away as they both look to find ways to improve their lives and their relationship with each other.
Days of the Bagnold Summer is very much a story about both a mother and her son coming out of their shells, trying to find the means to shake up their fairly routine day to day when given a summer together. Their relationship to begin with is one of begrudging acceptance on Daniel’s part, a teenager who sees it as part of his raison d’etre to believe everything his Mum does is lame and embarrassing. As a result, some of his outbursts at her are cruel and hurtful, making Daniel a little hard to warm to, particularly when paired with Earl Cave’s occasionally awkward performance, both of which improve as the film goes on. Daniel’s behaviour does come from a place of confusion, as Daniel transitions from being disappointed about not seeing his father for the summer (who, from all evidence present, is a bit of a twat) to realising how much love and care there is right in front of him in his mother.
It is Sue Bagnold though who will really capture your heart. Dolan puts in a performance of heartbreaking authenticity. She is a mother trying her best to show love and understand her son, and is often faced with dismissal, ending up living a pretty lonely existence. Dolan is wonderful, and much of why the admittedly thin structure of the film works as well as it does is down to her sensitive portrayal. Some of the best scenes involve her and her female co-stars, with some well played scenes between her hippie friend Tamsin Greig and loving sister Alice Lowe standing out as some of the funniest, and some of the more touching scenes.
As a debut for Bird, the film doesn’t make too many bold choices when it comes to staging its family drama. But he clearly has an eye for giving characters space, giving jokes the room to land and breathe, and letting the actors do their thing. It’s occasionally a little over edited, and some of the framings verge close to imitating a lot of the now cliched indie cinema symmetrical framings, but for the most part the filmmaking remains largely unintrusive to the relate-able drama on display. The music of the film, scored by Belle and Sebastian, is also an element which puts on the film on the precipice of falling into the twee indie valley, but it doesn’t end up being well played, rarely dominating the soundscape and doing well to add to the oddball sweetness of the film, rather than overpowering it.
Days of the Bagnold Summer is a very sweet debut from Bird, if one that never quite rises above traditional patterns of a coming of age story. Where it does excel is in making this a coming of age tale that is as much about the middle-aged Sue as it is the teenaged Daniel. The reason it chimes is down to Monica Dolan’s beautiful performance, one which elevates many of the scenes throughout this slight slice of British suburban life.
Dir: Simon Bird
Scr: Lisa Owens, based on the graphic novel by Joff Winterhart
Cast: Monica Dolan, Earl Cave, Tamsin Greig, Alice Lowe, Rob Brydon
Prd: Matthew Wilkinson
DOP: Simon Tindall
Music: Belle and Sebastian
Country: United Kingdom
Run time: 86 mins
Days of the Bagnold Summer is available on demand from June 8th.