Movie review: Days of the Bagnold Summer

(image via IMP Awards)

When you’re growing up, figuring out who you are and how the people around you matter is not always a straightforward exercise.

It should be, on paper at least, a slam dunk that you would love your mother since she, in all likelihood very much loves you back but in Days of the Bagnold Summer, adapted by screenwriter Lisa Owens from Jeff Winterheart’s 2012 graphic novel of the same name, this and a great many obvious certainties are swallowed into the yawning and chaotic maw that is a 15-year-old teenager grappling with an ever-changing lifescape.

The thing is that goth metal rocker Daniel (Earl Cave) – though he is adamant he is not a member of that particularly mournful tribe – does love his mother Sue (Monica Dolan), a sad, caught-in-a-rut librarian mum but is entirely unsure, caught up as he is an unpredictable maelstrom of emotions, how to express that or even what kind of love looks like.

Frequently snapping at her and berating the hollow sadness of her life, which Sue like all mothers of teenagers seems to handle, for the most part, with a resigned equanimity, Daniel’s state of perpetual ill-at-easeness with life receives a further body blow when his very much looked forward trip to see his dad in Florida (where he lives with his new wife and just-born baby daughter) for six weeks over summer is abruptly and awkwardly cancelled.

Sue is gutted for him and rightly concerned about what he will do with all this time on his hands, and suggests he find himself a summer job or undertake some activity that will see him gainfully occupied.

While Daniel usually accedes in some form to his mother’s usually quite reasonable requests – she only loses her temper at him once or twice, and even then only after sustained provocation by her son – Days of the Bagnold Summer is in effect a back-and-forth cold war of sorts with mother and son not entirely sure what to do with all this unexpected time allotted to them.

Directed by Simon Bird, vets known for his role in The Inbetweeners, and sporting a dreamily emotive soundtrack by Belle and Sebastian, Days of the Bagnold Summer is one of those quietly unassuming and gently amusing film that ends packing quite an emotional punch.

Not that anything too dramatic happens; Daniel does have a problematic friendship with bestie Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott) but that hardly causes any earth-shattering trauma even in the midst of a break in contact, and for the most part, the film moving without dramatic impact or massive epiphany to a point where Daniel and Sue’s relationship does sort itself in a way that suggests Daniel is coming to appreciate what his mum means to him.

In an American film, which emotions are worn far more obviously and with greater emphasis on the sleeve, Daniel and Sue would come to some massive breaking point from which would proceed a healing understanding and the nezt more mature, less disruptive stage of Daniel’s young life.

But Days of the Bagnold Summer is not interested in being that film, nor does it need to be, with the film achieving impressive, humour-laced, dramatic impact without the need for any flashy, showy or overly dramatic.

Instead, as Daniel grapples with coming of age in a world where things are not entirely to his liking such as his emotional and geographic distance from his dad and the feeling that he’s stuck with his mum, and Sue faces a life where not much changes and even romantic interest by someone like Douglas Porter (Rob Brydon), Daniel Year 10 history teacher, comes loaded with uncertainty and possible disappointment, Days of the Bagnold Summer is content to let the ebbs and flows of life in the stultifying suburb of London in which they live quietly tell the story.

The beauty of this restrained approach is that film is given space and breadth to explore the ins and out of the relationship between Daniel and Sue, to portray the fact that even though Daniel is deeply unhappy in life and convinced he has the worst of all possible realities and mums, that he is in fact luckier than he realises.

After all, Sue demonstrably loves him, persisting in demonstrating that love even in the face of near-constant backlash and emotional turmoil on Daniel’s part and proving to her son again and again that while certain things he does are unacceptable – she is no doormat; Daniel knows precisely when he has overstepped the mark – that she unconditionally and wholly and completely loves him.

That is obvious in a host of small though important things Sue does for him.

She makes him meals at all times of the day and night and is there for him when it is obvious he has taken some kind of drug but he can’t bring himself to admit that; she also gently directs him to pairs of black shoes he can wear to a wedding, in the fact of resistance on his part to anything other than sneakers, and sits side-by-side with him when he is clearly distressed by the ill-health of childhood dog Riley, the one tangible remaining link to his absent dad.

We also see small signs that Daniel does love his mum – he always lets her take a small piece of his cake (“No icing”) for instance and he does occasionally let down his considerably high walls and talk honestly to his mum, something that happens with increasing frequency over a slow-moving but meaningful summer.

Days of the Bagnold Summer is a sweet, charming but thoughtfully substantial film that realistically portrays what it is like to be caught in the messy uncertainty of growing up and how coming to terms with your life and how important people like your mum or parents are in sustaining it isn’t instantaneous nor dramatically profound but comes slowly to you leading to all kinds of good things, including a better relationship with your mum perhaps, that may not fix all your problems but which makes dealing with and living with them easier than you might ever have imagined possible.

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