Lockdown has done strange things to families. Some have been stretched to breaking point by lengthy periods of communal incarceration; others have been brought together, reforging bonds that may have been broken. In Days of the Bagnold Summer, a bittersweet coming-of-age tale (for both of its central characters), mother and son Sue and Daniel aren’t actually in lockdown but they might as well be. Forced to spend several weeks getting under each other’s feet, theirs is a tale of isolation and social distancing that has nothing to do with Covid-19 but still strikes a timely chord.
Monica Dolan is terrific as Sue Bagnold, the put-upon yet quietly indomitable fiftysomething librarian whose feckless former husband is now swanning around the States with his pregnant new partner. Lank-haired metal fan Daniel (rising star Earl Cave, seen recently in True History of the Kelly Gang) had been preparing to spend the summer in Florida with his dad, to whose many failings he remains wilfully oblivious. So when, inevitably, Dad lets Daniel down at the last moment, Sue is left facing a six-week sulkathon from her surly and perennially pissed-off son. “It’s not my fault you’re the most boring person in the world!” snaps Daniel, who blames his mother for everything – from passing comment on the lyrics of Metallica (“it’s poetry!”) to agreeing to go on a date with his history teacher, Mr Porter (Rob Brydon, oozing smarm).
The Bagnolds were first introduced to Observer readers in 2009, when author and illustrator Joff Winterhart was runner-up in the Observer/Cape graphic short story prize. That story blossomed into the 2012 graphic novel on which Simon Bird’s funny, acerbic, yet surprisingly tender film is based. Building on the promise of his 2016 short film Ernestine & Kit – a darkly comic tale of two child-snatching old biddies in County Sligo – Bird (best known for his starring role in The Inbetweeners) captures both the levity and the pathos of Winterhart’s source, aided by Lisa Owens’s excellently empathetic script, which is poignant and affecting.
Despite replacing the sketchy, monochrome squares of the graphic novel with colourful, widescreen images, Bird and cinematographer Simon Tindall are careful to retain a sense of lonely intimacy, with still or slow-moving cameras creating a visual framework that somehow combines the epic within the everyday. In one sublimely tragicomic sequence (bizarrely reminiscent of an infamous scene from A Clockwork Orange), Sue is seen whizzing at high speed around the kitchen, performing endless chores while Daniel sits utterly still, unmoved and unhelping, as if the two are literally living in the same house but in different time zones. Elsewhere, suburban streets and shopping centres are lent an almost western scope, while the vast blue skies of a beach trip provide an ironic backdrop to a scene of chilly confrontation between this odd couple.
There are, of course, other characters in this story, ranging from Sue’s more outgoing sister Carol, played with a smidgen of acerbic sass by Alice Lowe; to Tamsin Greig as Astrid, the hippy-dippy mother of Daniel’s best friend, who manages to get under Sue’s skin. But despite everything that goes on around them – whether its Daniel’s hilarious attempts to join a local death-metal band (a subplot with a lovely pay-off) or Sue’s misadventures with Mr Porter – it’s the mismatched mother and son who hold our attention at all times. Winterhart’s novel may open with the declaration that “When someone looks back and writes a history of this summer, two people they will almost certainly leave out are Sue and Daniel Bagnold”, yet Bird finds something great in their sidelined lives – whether it’s yearning and loss, or love and laughter. The frost between these two starts to thaw, but as they both grow into different people, the warmth we share feels neither contrived nor sentimental.
Some of that warmth comes from the music. Daniel may blot out the world with the wail of angry guitars, but it’s the whimsical tunes of Belle and Sebastian that dominate the soundtrack, a melancholy accompaniment that matches the lo-fi scratchiness of the original illustrations. Plaudits, too, to costume designer Alison McLaughlin, who follows Winterhart’s lead by dressing Sue and Daniel, respectively, in woollen jumpers and baggy all-black fatigues that accentuate just how out of place they are in a world in which the sun is shining. Interlocking vignettes swing from laugh-out-loud comedy to piercing melancholia, but at the centre of it all there is a genuine sense of rebirth and renewal – no mean feat for a small movie with a big heart and a surprisingly wide-ranging vision.
Streaming on multiple platforms from 8 June