The first thing to get out of the way is that “Days of the Bagnold Summer” has nothing whatsoever to do with Enid Bagnold, author of “National Velvet” and “The Chalk Garden.” More’s the pity, as Simon Bird’s debut behind the camera, adapted from Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel, could use some of the depth and wit the earlier writer brought to her characters and their situations.
Not that the movie is aiming for the same sophisticated vibe. “Bagnold Summer” is about a teenage metalhead forced to spend the summer with his painfully square mother, and its influences come from small, genial American indies with a touch of minor — very minor — Mike Leigh. But even if the general ultra-clean cartoonishness of it all is deliberate, the film’s whisper-thin premise and sitcom-like characters are the cinema equivalent of Sweethearts candy: rather too sugared, and immediately forgotten.
Bird’s interest in a high school misfit can conceivably be linked to his starring role in the British coming-of-age series “The Inbetweeners,” though perhaps that’s trying too hard to put him into a categorizable box. To be fair, his film is as much about the mother, Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan), as it is the son, Daniel (Earl Cave), yet while the script, adapted by Bird’s wife Lisa Owens, manages the balance, there’s no weight to either role. Gangly, straggly-haired Daniel lives with his divorced mother in an English suburb and can’t wait to spend his six-week summer holiday with his dad and his new family in Florida. Then a call comes, and his father cancels, which means Daniel is stuck with Mom and her comically dowdy cardigans.
That’s the premise: He’ll mope around, sullenly resisting his mother’s attempts at diversion, and she’ll keep at it, trying to find small bonding moments. Clichés run deep in Bagnold land, where Sue is a librarian whose idea of a risqué night goes as far as hand-holding. Daniel, meanwhile, can’t get motivated to do anything, half-heartedly looking for a job and toying with the idea of answering an advert for a metalhead singer. He’s naturally argumentative with his mom and resistant to all her suggestions, but he’s also not exactly energetic with his boisterous best friend Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott, incongruously sporting a far posher accent than the rest).
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Deep down of course, Daniel is a nice guy, the kind who’ll never express a loving word to his mother but will protect her against any slights. In that way he’s the more layered character, since Sue’s merely a stick figure with various comic attributes pinned on, the kind of role designed for audiences to laugh at while admiring her cheery pluck. Dolan has a BAFTA and an Olivier Award; she’s an actress who understands subtlety, but here the camera only registers the kinds of over-signaled facial tics usually seen on British TV parodies. Cave (yes, he’s Nick’s son) is oddly more real, yet as written the character has barely two dimensions. Visually the film has a minimalist feel in keeping with its graphic novel origins, which translates into basic setups, clean, crisp images, and the kinds of pastel colors stereotypically found in middle-class English homes. Indie songs by Belle & Sebastian are pleasant, though there’s an awful lot of them.