Days Of The Bagnold Summer
UK (2019) Dir. Simon Bird
Parents vs. teenagers is an age old war (at least since Rock & Roll created the teenager in the ‘50s) that will continue to be waged as long as parents give birth to teenagers. This is where the divide in the bond between parent and child rears its ugly head for the first time. Can this relationship be saved before it is severed completely?
15 year-old Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave) is looking forward to spending the summer holidays in Florida with his father and his new wife who is about to give birth and escaping life with his dowdy librarian single mum Sue (Monica Dolan). However, a few days before he is due to leave, Daniel gets a call from his father cancelling the trip off sending Daniel into a feeling of despair of spending six weeks with his mum.
Sue does her best to galvanise Daniel into helping out around the house or getting a summer job, but all he wants to do is stay in bed until noon, listen to his heavy metal music and hang out with his best friend Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott). Meanwhile, Sue meets Daniel’s history teacher Douglas Porter (Rob Brydon) at the library and they agree to have dinner together, adding to the tension already brewing between mother and son.
Admit it, we’ve all been there albeit with varying degrees of antagonism between us and out parents as we find a cocoon to crawl into that we hope to burst out of as fully formed adults. This would make the story of Days Of The Bagnold Summer rather familiar and relatable, unless you happen to be the parent of a teenager or a soon to be teen yourself then this may be a terrifying portent of things to come.
Originally a 2012 graphic novel by Joff Winterhart, there are visual elements as well as narrative ones which could be seen as caricature and convention pandering whilst at the same time the incisiveness and lack of pretension strongly imply this may have been based on Winterhart’s own experiences. I am not in a position to comment either way but I am sure I am not alone recognising some of the plot beats without memories of my youth resurfacing.
Thankfully, I wasn’t as openly rude and resentful towards my parents (I wouldn’t dare, have you met my dad?) as Daniel is to Sue, a mousey woman of 52 left to raise her son on her own after hubby Bob walked on them when Daniel was just 8. The story of the break up isn’t explored in any great detail, the most we get is Sue was the breadwinner and Bob the bread waster until a younger model came along. He is now living the high life in the US but still can’t send any child maintenance money.
Daniel has either been told or at least convinced that Sue’s unreasonable behaviour was the cause of the split, regularly throwing out spiteful barbs about how his dad wouldn’t have left if she wasn’t such a miserable cow. Complete with his lank, greasy hair, baggy eyes, and uniform of black clothes with metal band merchandise, Daniel is an aesthetic and personality cliché yet not entirely outside the realms of plausibility.
Certainly, the way he is so hostile to his mum is as infuriating as his laziness and selfish disregard for anyone else, yet Sue is the first person he turns to for anything, since he is too useless to do anything for himself. The older audience will want to slap Daniel, the younger ones will empathise yet there are moments we’ve all experienced – such as the shoe shopping with mum or awkward car journeys where the musical choices are Barry Manilow or Metallica!
Looking at the bigger picture, whilst Daniel’s arc is the one with likely to resonate the most with all viewers, the real story is the journey Sue goes on. Worked off her feet and little thanks for it, she has resigned herself to an old maid life, and not even the snide encouragement from her younger hairdresser sister Carol (Alice Lowe) with her suburban chic can break her out of. The attention from Mr. Porter comes out of the blue and is a start but dowdy is as dowdy does, despite his attempts to get some action.
From our perspective, Sue really deserves a break but we know she isn’t going to get one. If she does, it needs to occur organically – forcing it will only create chaos, which is the theme of this story. Every time she tries to force Daniel to do something or open up, he retreats further into himself. Further dismissal by his father does less to make him appreciate Sue more, instead Daniel blames her for his father’s attitude.
Reconciliation has to happen eventually but not without heartache, humiliation, and good old fashioned compromise first. As dour and depressing as this might sound, there is a light tone prevalent throughout, littered with some genuinely funny moments that lean closer to pathos. Daniel auditioning for the singer of a metal band has a great pay off, whilst a toe-curling fudge making demo makes a compelling argument for introversion being a positive personality trait.
Monica Dolan is absolutely fantastic as Sue, representing “normal” people in a real world with horrific artificial monsters. She doesn’t seek our sympathy but earns it through being natural, whilst Earl (son of Nick) Cave deserves kudos since we loathe and relate to Daniel. Director Simon Bird (of The Inbetweeners fame) avoids trying to replicate US gloss nor does he go gloomy in search of faux gravity, instead presenting a recognisable British landscape and a snapshot of realistic British life.
Days Of The Bagnold Summer has been labelled “Ladybird for male British teens” which is unfair as Ladybird was as realistic as a seven pound note. Americans may not get it, but we Brits should find this an enriching little outing.