With patient hands, director Simon Bird (“The Inbetweeners”) and scribe Lisa Owens craft a quiet character study in their offbeat “Days of the Bagnold Summer.” Light on its feet, this solid example of minimalism in comedy shows how some of the funniest moments in film and life are the ones stripped down. In a story where personal growth transpires long after the turbulent teenage years, the film is less a coming-of-age tale and more a gentle slice of life.
“Days of the Bagnold Summer” approaches its subject matter with clear affection for both of its leads and, with its dry, instinctual humor, creates a story that is subdued but effective in its charms. Sue (Monica Dolan) has just broke the news to her temperamental 15-year-old son, Daniel (Earl Cave), that he won’t be spending summer vacation with his dad in Florida due to the impending birth of his half-sibling. What was meant to be a break for both Monica and Daniel turns into a test of their relationship.
Instead of finding overblown conflict or a catalytic moment that breaks down the central relationship, the script — based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Joff Winterhart — deploys acerbic wit and heart in equal measure. The two — he a metalhead and she a librarian — endure the typical trials of families with teens, all the while confined to their small suburban town in England. Sue and Daniel, for much of the film, are at odds as both try to hold out against the other’s preferred lifestyle. Beyond that push-and-pull dynamic, however, there is fondness and protectiveness emanating from both characters, a quality that engages the audience beyond the antagonistic setup.
But the film takes its time in reaching those high points, with Daniel and Sue beginning as thinly drawn and almost caricature-like. Buttoned up and mild-mannered, Sue strikes a perfect juxtaposition with her son, who is decked out in all black with his nails painted and his Metallica T-shirts. It isn’t until near the halfway point that Owens and Bird bring greater depth to either character. Instead they milk as much as possible from the sheer awfulness of Daniel’s teenage angst as well as the micro-humiliations that befall both him and his mother. One of the strongest scenes takes place during a date between Sue and Rob Brydon’s Douglas, a teacher who works at Daniel’s school. The scene, despite the flirtation from Douglas, is fraught with tension and leaves viewers awaiting the worst.
With an original score by Belle and Sebastian, “Days of the Bagnold Summer” establishes its tone from the opening scene when it comes to writing but never settles on anything visually. Instead, Bird favors open spaces, allowing his actors to perform the heavy lifting, which, with an actress of Dolan’s caliber, isn’t so much a bad idea as a missed opportunity for something greater. Where fun and energy might’ve been injected to match the playful script, Bird opted for something safer.
Despite lacking in visual urgency, the film is saved by the heartfelt relationship at its center. It places as much emphasis on the character’s individualities as it does on their relationship, making for a much more dynamic story. Clever and bright, “Days of the Bagnold Summer” gains much from Daniel, Sue, and their realistic relationship — from their arguments to moments of bonding and everything in between — creating an endearing if weightless film.
DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER
Directed by Simon Bird. Screenplay by Lisa Owens. Based on the graphic novel by Joff Winterhart. Starring Monica Dolan, Earl Cave, and Rob Brydon. Music by Belle and Sebastian. Available for streaming via Coolidge Corner Theatre. 84 minutes.