Director: S.J. Clarkson
Starring: Oscar Kennedy, Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty
British period piece import ‘Toast’, playing at Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles this weekend as part of their “From Britain With Love” series, is a well-acted if somewhat meandering and pedantic coming-of-age story, based on the memoir of Nigel Slater, a popular English food writer, journalist and broadcaster. Fans of ‘EastEnders’ and all other sorts of across-the-pond television, as well as kitchen-sink dramas in general, will find reward in the detail and clarity of this tale.
The movie opens in Wolverhampton in the late 1960s, where nine-year-old Nigel (Oscar Kennedy, quite superb and sympathetic) lives with his mother (Victoria Hamilton) and father (Ken Stott). Nigel seems bright and curious, about food in particular, but neither of his parents seem to understand him very much. A plaintive voiceover tells us he’s “never had veggies that weren’t from a tin,” and his mother not only discourages any culinary adventurousness but also seems basically clueless in the kitchen. (The film takes its title for the default family dinner when things get burned, or Nigel’s mom forgets to open cans before boiling beans.)
Nigel tries his hand at cooking, but as his mom falls ill with an inoperable respiratory condition, the family falls apart. When she passes, Nigel is left alone with his father. Until, that is, housekeeper Joan (Helena Bonham Carter) sets her romantic sights on him, targeting his heart via his stomach. Flash forward more than a couple years and Nigel, now a teenager (Freddie Highmore), feels even more isolated, having moved away from his friends and out to the country. Joan, as ever, still holds sway over Nigel’s father, and they eventually wed. But, emboldened by a home economics class at school, Nigel makes plans to pursue his culinary interests more fully, and “out-cook” his un-matronly nemesis, thus winning over his father.
If one wasn’t familiar with the fact that ‘Toast’ was based on a true story, one could easily intuit that from the movie’s faults. The adaptation, by ‘Billy Elliot’ screenwriter Lee Hall, aims righteously for adolescent feeling, and has a capable enabler for that mission in neophyte Kennedy. The problem is that ‘Toast’ feels rather scattershot in its focus and tone, and doesn’t successfully identify a main problem or conflict.
Too much time is spent, proportionally, with nine-year-old Nigel if the film is to really be a coming-of-age story centered around passive-aggressive baking and cooking in Nigel’s teenage years. Highmore is fine, but it feels like he enters the movie far too late, and it’s weird that at least seven years on he’s still having some rather basic-level (if underdiscussed, and poorly delineated) conflicts with Joan. Other subplots (Nigel’s discovery of his homosexuality via a fleeting conversation with an older guy) and, indeed, entire characters (a gardener played by Matthew McNulty) feel forced in by dictate, as if they’re beholden to some offscreen nonfiction standard.
‘Toast’ is sincere, and has a lot going for it. But it would do better with a bit less hearty of an attempted embrace of the whole truth, one surmises. It’s the type of film whose ending — involving a character walking away from someone yelling at him, and slowly smiling, a joyful resolve indicating that Everything Is Going To Be Okay — seems nipped entirely from other movies of coming-of-age uplift. That might be fine, but it seems to have influenced uninspired or problematic decisions about other, earlier scenes, like poppy montages set to Dusty Springfield tunes, that then run counter to any heavier dramatic impact the filmmakers wish to impart.
All this said, director S. J. Clarkson stages things with an unfussy straightforwardness, and the movie exhibits both an exceedingly agreeable production design and an inviting visual scheme. The latter, from cinematographer Balazs Bolygo, casts a certain welcoming nostalgia over the proceedings. ‘Toast’ isn’t burnt; it gets a lot of the details right, but is just off some in its focus.
Written by: Brent Simon