Coming-of-age comedies tend to traffic in exaggeration. Perhaps the teens talk in rapid-fire dialogue that’s an intoxicating blend of pseudo-intellectualism and hip slang suitable for catchphrases and merch. Perhaps the tone of the humor is ramped to raunchy to reflect raging hormones, or broad to revel in juvenalia. Perhaps the every-teen hero is meant to be ordinary, yet boasts a jaw-dropping fashion sense, flawless skin, and looks like they’ve got a whole style squad at the ready for every vexation and victory. Somehow, Days of the Bagnold Summer rejects every one of these cherished cliches, yet is still winsome, funny, and flat-out fantastic. As I explain, you’ll think “this shouldn’t work,” but I assure you, it truly does!
According to coming-of-age stories, summer is a time of freedom, frolicking, parties, travel, sex, and romance. Yeah, not for Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave). Sure, he’d planned to fly off from his quiet English town to the new horizons of Florida to visit his dad. But that’s fallen through, and now this sullen, introverted metal-head is stuck home with mum. Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) is loving, supportive, and doggedly patient as Daniel (Not Danny!) slugs around the house, refusing to do much of anything. Her idea of a good time is a jaunt to the diner and some shoe shopping. So, Daniel sulks. Watching the two of them be miserable in each other’s company should not be funny or comforting, and yet it is radiantly both. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering who is at the helm of this unconventional comedy.
You might remember Simon Bird as the apoplectic protagonist at the center of the critically heralded Britcom The Inbetweeners. Bird makes his directorial debut with Days of the Bagnold Summer, and if you squint you can see the fingerprints of the seminal series. Sure, Daniel will never unleash a comically squealing tirade on his mom as the boys on the show did. Yet in both, there lies a frank recognition of the absurdity of the parent-child bond. Teens refuse to see their parents as people, until they have to. In this case, Daniel witnesses his mum blossom as a new beau enters the scene (Rob Brydon). Meanwhile, Sue is in a constant battle to determine whether Daniel needs space, direction, or maybe a metaphorical kick in the pants.
The script by Lisa Owens splits the screentime between the two, allowing each alone time to shape their stories. While Sue’s takes her to work at the library and into awkward conversations with casual acquaintances, Daniel’s leads him into a quarrel with his only friend and the chance to bring his frontman dreams to life. Yet for the radical differences between them, both are misfits in the world around them. Two sides of the same coin, that can’t stop spinning to find its place.
Days of the Bagnold Summer is based on a graphic novel, and if I didn’t know that going in I might have guessed. Bird presents Sue and Daniel in stark compositions that show at once how they are intrinsically linked. An invisible string connects them, whether he is trailing her on an escalator, or they are sitting in separate rooms, framed by stark doorways, as they eat alone and silently. Physically, they share unflattering haircuts and a slump of the shoulders that signals they’d rather you didn’t, thanks. All these details might be credited to the comic (to be honest, I couldn’t say). Yet Bird brings in color to great effect. The settings around mother and son pop with blaring reds, sea blues, a grassy greens. Resolutely dressed in black and wearing “gruesome” band hoodies as a uniform, Daniel is a dark mark wherever he goes, a sharpie streaked across a postcard picture. Meanwhile, Sue dedicatedly drapes herself in pale pinks and beiges, which makes her seem like she might be a background actor in her own movie.
All these visual cues make Days of the Bagnold Summer a richly realized film, superbly designed and stippled with cinematography that is clever without veering into showy. Then, a swoony soundtrack from Belle and Sebastian gives a summery gloss. Yet all this might feel just clever if it weren’t for two leads who positively stick the landing.
Cave’s performance feels like a rebellion. He rejects ego along with any attempt to ingratiate the audience through charming smiles or whistful stares into the mid-distance. Daniel is a deeply unpleasant kid to be around, and Cave digs into that. He chews with his mouth open. He walks in a lumbering stalk as if his legs have sprung up too suddenly and he fears they’ll splinter beneath him. He speaks with a snarky snarl, but it’s tinged with tenderness. Like the secret grins when he dreams up a band name, there’s a vulnerability in even his harshest moments. All of these tumbles together creating a top-notch portrait of the remorseless tangle that is teen misery in the summertime.
Then there is Dolan.
It’s hard to explain how shimmeringly hilarious she is in this movie, as it’s not the kind that has punchlines, really. She’s funny in a mum way. Dad jokes are a thing well-understood, defining a humor that is almost cringe-ingly hokey. But mum humor feels more ambiguous. Yet here is it defined? Is it in how Sue’s lip trembles into a near giggle as she badgers her son for just a nibble from the corner of his cake slice? (No icing!) Is it in the chirpy tone with which she asks about his day? Or perhaps the tumble of words attempting to wrangle the etiquette of abruptly intimate moments? It’s not as if Dolan’s performance is spoofing motherhood. It’s more that she so exquisitely captures the delicate notes of a mom trying ever to be up and to be everything for her kid, that she seems on the brink of cracking. Together, they crackle, a warm fire for a long night.
Somehow, this is a comedy without punchlines, without popping panache, without charismatic characters. Yet it is profoundly funny. It does not mock its misfits, it is ruthlessly humane. So, I found myself chuckling and not able to really articulate why. With a smile that refused to wilt, I curled up in the cozy discomfort of their conflict, happy to be a fly on the wall to two wallflowers daring to blossom.
Days of the Bagnold Summer opens in select theaters, virtual cinema, and on digital on February 19.
Header Image Source: Greenwich Entertainment