The U.K. mod revival of the late 1970s and 1980s was a retro-minded movement, albeit meshed a little with then-current trends: a bit of contemporary punk, a bit of midcentury Teddy Boy grease, all swirled together with a swagger that peaked in 1979’s time-capsule rock opera “Quadrophenia.” An anodyne Manchester-to-Brighton road movie that somewhat wishfully imagines a strain of enduring mod enthusiasm in today’s teens, “The Pebble and the Boy” forgets the present-day touch that made the earlier revival hip, presenting us with a pair of Zoomers on scooters who feel wholly middle-aged in conception and sensibility. The result is an exercise in retro-upon-retro nostalgia that feels as ill-defined as a Xerox of a Xerox, though die-hard dad mods will thrill to its styling and soundtrack.
“Once a mod, always a mod” is the mantra repeated by multiple characters in the course of writer-director Chris Green’s leanly plotted film, which, even across a scant 80-minute running time, manages to repeat itself in more ways than that alone. The story, such as it is, is almost wholly determined by the wavering will and temperament of its 19-year-old protagonist, John (Patrick McNamee), a semi-intrepid man on a mission who throws in the towel every quarter-hour or so just to keep things from wrapping up too fast. The winsome presence of feature-film newcomer McNamee keeps the character more amiable than the script might suggest, though either way, he’s something of a cipher, with feelings and motivations as floppy as his center-parted bangs.
The real star of the show, as it happens, is a gleamingly preserved Lambretta scooter, painted the most royal of blues and adorned with at least two dozen sparkly rearview mirrors. It’s John’s inheritance from his recently deceased father, an original mod revivalist who, in his salad days, once led a bikers’ protest against Margaret Thatcher on the streets of Brighton. Straitlaced Mancunian college student John, who has never so much as sat on a scooter and can’t tell the Jam from Secret Affair, has hitherto paid little mind to his dad’s wilder past. But there’s an urn of ashes to be scattered, and the mod mecca of Brighton is where they belong, so over his mother’s protests, he straddles the Lambretta and hits the road.
Cue an episodic narrative in which bike and script alike run into sporadic patches of engine trouble. In the first, John is bailed out by a mate of his dad’s, whose spunky tomboy daughter Nicki (Sacha Parkinson) joins him for the ride. That the supposed romantic chemistry bubbling between them never plays out as much more than a chummy brother-sister bond is a distraction, though Parkinson — so memorable in Daniel Kokotajlo’s searing Jehovah’s Witness drama “Apostasy” — is a welcome enlivening force, even when saddled with a one-note cool-girl stereotype of a character. She doesn’t seem half so interested in John as she does in the pair of Paul Weller concert tickets found in his dad’s parka pocket, and who can really blame her?
Weller’s spiky songs — along with the mournful title track, accompanying a montage of melancholy beachside moping in Brighton — form the bulk of a hit-filled period soundtrack that must have taken a chunk out of this modest indie’s budget. Given the film’s primarily nostalgic audience pull, you can’t say it’s not money well spent. (A handful of cameos from mod-revival figures wholly unrecognizable to non-acolytes — plus Patsy Kensit, also an associate producer — make it clear the film is only paying lip service to youth culture.) Still, the pinch is felt elsewhere in a road movie that never gives in to the thrill of open asphalt, with John’s handsome two-wheeled steed remaining little more than a posing prop in scene after scene. “Quadrophenia” is blatantly referenced via a late-breaking, swiftly resolved plot twist, but the reminder does “The Pebble and the Boy” few favors. Like a fully accessorized mod scooter, it’s festooned with rearview mirrors — so many that it can hardly see the road ahead.