While “Derry Girls” continues to be the last word in young, raucous female rebellion on the Emerald Isle, “A Bump Along the Way” has a little something to add. Set in the same Northern Irish city as the hit Netflix sitcom, but shedding the ’90s nostalgia for the Snapchat age, Shelly Love’s appealing, unassuming debut feature is a bright reminder that while Derry girls may grow up, they don’t entirely grow out of their antics. Tracing the up-and-down relationship between insecure “15-going-on-50” highschooler Allegra (Lola Petticrew) and her single mother Pam (Bronagh Gallagher), a persistent party girl stunned to find herself pregnant in her mid-forties, Love’s film skirts televisual territory in its cozy, visually flat comedy of clashing sensibilities. Yet the more sharply empathetic insights of Tess McGowan’s screenplay do poke through the cheer, gently handling subjects ranging from patriarchal neglect to adolescent bullying.
This year’s Santa Barbara festival opener, “A Bump Along the Way” built a quiet fest-circuit profile for itself in 2019, winning first on turf at the Galway Film Fleadh before making its international premiere in Toronto’s Discovery program. A small U.K. release followed, as did a newcomer citation for Love at the British Independent Film Awards, but this is a cross-generational charmer likeliest to find its following on streaming platforms. With any luck, it may also be remembered as a highly auspicious big-screen arrival for young Irish star Petticrew, who brings tenderly bruised authenticity to a character who could have been played merely as a standard collection of teen anxieties; her flinty chemistry with reliable pro Gallagher keeps things on track even when proceedings veer into more predictable hugging and learning.
Gallagher, too, brings layers of self-awareness and defiance to a potentially blowsy comic caricature. A happily single free spirit who doesn’t see maternal duty as a barrier to a good time, Pam could easily be a vision of the “Derry Girls” squad’s future: We meet her on the evening of her boozy 44th birthday celebration, having snuck away from the night’s revelry for a cheeky one-night stand with 24-year-old plumber Barry (Andy Doherty). Allegra, a clean-living vegan who makes no effort to mask her contempt for Pam’s life choices, is unsympathetic to the next morning’s crushing hangover; she’s even less impressed weeks later when, despite doctors having long pronounced her infertile, Pam finds that she’s been knocked up.
“You have more sense, more experience, you’re financially better off,” says a gynaecologist, listing the supposed advantages of a (gasp) “geriatric pregnancy”: Clearly he hasn’t known Pam, a part-time bakery worker, for long. Barry runs a mile when she delivers the news, as did Allegra’s boorish father Kieran (Gerard Jordan) years before: “I never signed up for any of this,” he whines when Pam presses him for child support. Between chuckles, McGowan’s script paints a caustic picture of a misogynistic Catholic culture in which, for unmarried women, childbirth is very much a one-way street.
Fueled by the untested moral righteousness of many a teen, Allegra is still too naive to see this inequality for herself. Pending an imminent realization of how cruelly society can judge women for imperfect behavior, she too blames her mother unreservedly for everything from her meager income to her unwanted pregnancy. “A Bump Along the Way” is pleasingly, perceptively mature in its articulation of the give-and-take between mother and daughter, neither of whom knows best all the time. Whether it’s Pam quietly one-upping Allegra on the correct pronunciation of “quinoa,” or both women tacitly confessing to graver errors of judgment, the film’s best scenes feel rooted in genuine observation of parenthood, not just engineered around cute life lessons.
It’s a pity, then, that the film’s drama tends to peter out just as it threatens to get truly abrasive. Too many challenging confrontations are cut short, resolved by loaded glances or politely hasty scene transitions that — particularly in the film’s less convincingly performed classroom sections — lend proceedings the air of an after-school special. The two excellent leads do much to fill in the unspoken gaps, while Love (who herself became a mother in her forties) directs with palpable emotional investment in the material, steering a fine ensemble with wit and care. If the film’s formal flourishes are few and far between, an ambient, occasionally discordant score by electronic artist Die Hexen represents the most surprising stylistic element here.