"It's impossible," observes Nigel Slater, "not to love someone who made you toast."
So begins Toast, an odd, colorful new film about food and love, and based on the English chef's memoir of the same name. Slater's observations on both topics, read in voice-overs, bring humor to what is otherwise the story of a very sad childhood.
The story opens in a grocery store, where young Nigel (played by Oscar Kennedy, then Freddie Highmore when he grows up) is following around his lovely mum (Victoria Hamilton). Mum is a wonderful person and a horrible cook. Everything she buys comes in cans and tins--"my mother was always adverse to fresh produce"-- then she goes home and boils the food while it's still in the can. Toast's aesthetic is all about the unique colors and shapes of 1960's English food, and some of the best scenes of Nigel's early life revolve around the family pushing really strange meat products around their plates (particularly memorable is the scene of the family picnic at the beach, which involves some sort of meat and jelly combination). When Mum's cooking gets really bad, she turns to her specialty: warm, satisfying toast. While Nigel's palate yearns for something more, his mother's consistent love and support and toast are enough for a happy childhood. Until she dies of asthma, leaving both him and his uncommunicative father (Ken Stott) grieving and totally unsure about how to relate with one another. Enter a new female force: Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), a married cleaning lady with the wrong accent who steals Dad's heart with her tight outfits and fantastic cooking. The rest of the story follows the three-way relationship between Nigel, his father, and his new evil stepmother. Nigel learns to cook, in part to take away any power Mrs. Potter may have over the family, and food becomes a weapon rather than a token of love. Meanwhile, the food gets better to look at-- Mrs. Potter's meals are totally 60's fabulous, dotted with maraschino cherries and slices of pineapple, and finished with a brilliant yellow lemon meringue pie.
There is something about Toast that reminds me of the Roald Dahl stories I devoured as a kid. Much like the heros in those stories, young Nigel has to navigate through a world where most grown-ups are can not be trusted, and children must face everyday life with cunning and resourcefulness, as well as an eye for magic. And like those stories, what is actually a pretty depressing narrative is handled with such an odd sense of humor that the audience doesn't mind following it to the end. The end though, it must be said, is sudden and rushed. The film spends most of its time in the sights (and smells) of Nigel's childhood, then sends him through another tragedy and into adulthood in about fifteen minutes.
Still, the film does a lot with that childhood before the pacing breaks down. And one of the more interesting things Toast does is to inject the old "evil stepmother" thing with some new ideas. Of course the success of this also has a lot to do with Helena Bonham Carter's acting. Her Mrs. Potter is nasty, manipulative and competitive with children. She is also somewhat desperate, very human, and very interested in using whatever she's got to get out of an abusive relationship and a bad home and into some sort of family. And she's a damn good cook. Toast gives the often-taken-for-granted task of cooking for a family a lot of credit, by making it look difficult, and very meaningful.
Toast is now playing in select theaters. Check those listings!