The premise of the observant British comedy Days of the Bagnold Summer is simple enough. We follow two people, each stuck in a rut, as they muddle through a long summer of disconnection and, if fortune and providence prevail, self-actualization.
One of them is Susan Bagnold, played by the extraordinary Monica Dolan. Susan is a librarian who satisfies everyone’s mental picture of one. A mousy and bespectacled divorcee in her early 50s, she doesn’t get out much, preferring to fixate on her ex-husband’s thriving life in Florida with a fancy car, a thirtysomething wife and a baby on the way.
The other character is her son Daniel (Earl Cave, son of alt-rock elder statesman Nick Cave), with whom Susan has more in common than she would readily admit. Daniel is a high school metalhead who satisfies everyone’s mental picture of one: long, greasy hair, self-administered Sharpie tattoos in blackletter typeface, a T-shirt wardrobe in every shade of black. He’s also sullen enough to be a goth, a fair enough assumption for his cousin (Grace Hogg-Robinson) to make during a rare family visit, but he scoffs at such a label. “Then what are you?” she asks. “I don’t know,” he replies.
Indeed, Days of the Bagnold Summer, adapted from Jeff Winterhart’s 2014 graphic novel, is a film about two people adrift in life’s slipstream; neither seems to fit in anywhere, let alone in the same house. They were not supposed to be stuck together and driving each other crazy for a three-month interregnum. Daniel was scheduled to summer in Florida with his father, who canceled on him in the last minute, adding a sense of rejection to the seasonal boredom.
Simon Bird, in his directorial debut, favors tableaux that humorously underline this odd-couple pairing, like the twin clotheslines outside Susan’s home: one a billowing selection of Sue’s gentle pink and white frocks, the other a display of Daniel’s black metal T-shirts, with their over-the-top Grand Guignol imagery. Curiously, there isn’t much metal on the soundtrack, and nothing from Daniel’s favorites, Metallica. I have to wonder if the traditionally surly and unaccommodating rock band simply refused to license their music for the film.
If so, it’s their loss, because the winsome and surprisingly felicitous soundtrack is composed by Belle & Sebastian, who wrote an album’s worth of new songs for the movie and integrated a few of their classics as well. Selecting the most fey band of the Aughts to score the comings and goings of a heavy metal fan feels like a sly act of subversion, and when it works, it really works: When Daniel, in a rare moment of heeding his mother’s wishes, gloomily hands out his middling C.V. to mall retailers in a quarter-hearted attempt to gain a summer job, Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch speaks his truth on “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying.”
Earl Cave’s performance is spot-on and un-actorly — fine work, if inherently limited by the character’s monochrome emotional palette. Monica Dolan is the revelation, though. She plays Susan as an accurate archetype of a “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality, burying her bitterness at a life of middle-age stagnation under a cheerful disposition, as if acting the part of contented working mother will make it so.
After Daniel’s history teacher (Rob Brydon) takes a romantic interest in her while checking out a book, it’s charming to see Susan revert to overeager teenage rituals — like leaving tremulous messages on his voicemail, and springing to the phone when it rings, hoping it might be her new suitor. When, on their date, she makes the calculated move to unclasp the top button on her blouse, we see this as a bold act of louche rebellion — a more “metal” act than anything her son aspires to.
And when, after experimenting with an energy healing session under the hands of her neighbor, a reiki practitioner, her eruptive response is one of stirring vulnerability. Like this film itself, it’s a breakthrough that is full of surprises.
DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER. Director: Simon Bird; Cast: Monica Dolan, Earl Cave, Tamsin Greig, Rob Brydon, Alice Lowe; Not Rated; Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment; Now playing at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood; Living Room Theaters at FAU