Like the lemon meringue pies and shrimp cocktails it features throughout, Brit comedy-drama “Toast” is tasty, hearty and rather conventional. Helmed by TV director SJ Clarkson (“House,” “Heroes”), this ’60s-set, made-for-TV pic charts a boy’s coming of age — and coming out — through a culinary sentimental education, and features a deliciously comic turn from Helena Bonham Carter as a semi-evil stepmother. “Toast” reaped high ratings when it aired locally, boosted partly by its association with nationally treasured food writer Nigel Slater, author of the source material. Offshore, it could have niche appeal theatrically if cooked right.
Nine-year-old Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) somehow just knows there must be more to life and lunchtime than the canned food and powdered desserts prepared by his fragile mother (Victoria Hamilton). The shelves are hardly overflowing with choices at the local grocery store in Wolverhampton, the small city in the British Midlands where they live, but Mother won’t even try fresh cheese. Nigel’s dad (Ken Stott), the choleric manager of a factory, is angered and annoyed with his son’s fussiness about food.
When his mother dies of unspecified causes (an effective, melancholy stretch), Nigel and his father live off toast, but there’s little emotional nourishment in the household. Dad hires a cleaner, Joan Potter (Bonham Carter), a slatternly working-class woman whose sensual nature comes through in her short dresses and incredible gift for cookery.
Nigel’s dad and Joan start an affair, and eventually marry, much to snobbish little Nigel’s disgust. It’s not just that Joan could never replace his mother, or that she’s a bit of a sharp-tongued bitch; the script (by Lee Hall, “Billy Elliot”) makes it clear he dislikes her mainly because she’s so “common,” which rather daringly risks losing the viewer’s sympathy.
Years pass, and when Nigel is 16 (now played by Freddie Highmore), he opts to take home economics at school. Soon, he and Joan are competing for his father’s approval by seeing who can make the best desserts, a kind of hand-to-whisk combat that plays too much like a screenwriter’s contrivance.
Likewise, closure is achieved a little too neatly with Nigel learning to accept his gay sexuality on practically the same day things come to a head at home, sending him off on a journey that will result in his future fame. (The real Slater plays the chef who gives Nigel his first break.) On paper, it all looks like a tidy happy ending, but there’s something about fictional Nigel’s hatred of his stepmother that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Helmer Clarkson attempts to bustle auds away from the script’s potential problems by keeping the tone largely light and cheery, with an assist from comic montages (nicely spliced by editor Liana Del Giudice) and glossy lensing (courtesy of Balazs Bolygo). Perfs teeter just on the edge of caricature, but the ever-reliable Stott and Bonham Carter are pros enough to reign in it in just enough to make the characters likable.
Period details are spot-on, as to be expected from topnotch BBC productions, though the syrupy, trite score strikes an off note. Food styling, credited to Katharine Tidy, is relentlessly luscious.