One of the strongest British debut features to bow this year, brittle, sepulchral comedy “Black Pond” bodes very well for the future careers of co-writing and helming partners Will Sharpe, a thesp who appears here, and Tom Kingsley, a director of commercials and musicvideos. Although reportedly made on a shoestring budget, this story of a fraying suburban family crossing paths with a disturbed stranger features well-tuned perfs, inventive visuals and a script that’s unsettling, funny and poignant by turns. Pic didn’t make much of a splash post-domestic release, but deserves further exposure and could become a cult item.
The fact that “Black Pond” was self-distributed locally may or may not have to do with the fact that one of its stars, gifted actor Chris Langham (“The Thick of It,” the TV-series precursor of “In the Loop”), was convicted and sent to prison for downloading pornographic images of children. (He maintained he was only researching a role.) “Black Pond” reps Langham’s first acting gig since he left jail, and the script boldly invites real-life parallels by having Tom, the character he plays here, finding himself splashed all over the tabloid press, accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
A slightly hackneyed but effective mock-doc framing device inserts interviews with the major characters, who make it clear that Tom and his family were vilified recently in the media when they illegally buried a stranger who died at their house in Surrey. Pic then rolls back to show what led up to these events, exposing how the tragedy prompted the final rupture in Tom’s already shaky marriage to Sophie (Amanda Hadingue), a bitter woman who once aspired to become a poet. Also involved in the scandal are Tom and Sophie’s bickering 20-ish daughters Jess (Helen Cripps) and Katie (Anna O’Grady), who share a London flat with their friend Tim (Sharpe), who’s secretly in love with both young women.
It all starts when Tom, out walking his three-legged dog, Boy, meets Blake (Colin Hurley, wonderful) by local beauty spot Black Pond. Clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic but seemingly harmless, Blake touches something in Tom, who invites him back to his house to meet Sophie. Blake ends up staying overnight, and the next day, Boy dies at Black Pond under mysterious circumstances.
Jess, Katie and Tim all come home to Surrey to help lay Boy to rest by Black Pond, in a horribly funny sequence whose comedy of embarrassment is reminiscent of Mike Leigh. Later that evening, a deeply troubled Blake returns to interrupt the family dinner to say a final goodbye.
Script consistently zigs just when you think it’s going to zag, throwing quirky wild-card elements into the mix like the malicious psychotherapist (comedian Simon Amstell) who spills the whole story to the press. By rights, the subplot shouldn’t work, and for some auds it may be a tonal shift too far, but it adds some welcome, broadly humorous notes to a story that otherwise might have been too painfully sad. That said, the dialogue is often deliciously funny, especially in the hands of deadpan master Langham, who can milk a line like “I had a dream about ham sandwiches and broadband” for maximum comic effect. Other thesps are also aces.
Pic also draws on animation and in-camera effects for a crudely executed but peculiarly uncanny dream sequence that’s all the more effective for its amateurish look. Remaining tech credits are par for the low-budget course.