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You know you live in an odd household when the cruelest threat someone can muster is, “I do the lemon meringues around here!” That’s what a wicked stepmother (Helena Bonham Carter) hisses at 16-year-old Nigel (Freddie Highmore) in Toast, an adaptation of a ’60s-set memoir by British food writer Nigel Slater. But Nigel’s wonder years aren’t quite odd enough, and so enjoyment of this amiable nostalgia trip mostly hinges on one question: Do you care when the Observer scribe made his first pie?
For much of Toast, Nigel is a tweener (played by Oscar Kennedy, fair-haired and innocent-looking no matter how often he scowls). His father (Ken Stott) is an ass, forcing Nigel to cling to the apron strings of his mother (Victoria Hamilton). But she doesn’t really need that apron: Mum’s a horrible cook, sometimes serving jellied mystery meats and vegetables boiled right in their cans, but more often resorting to her old standby, toast. “No matter how bad things get, it’s impossible not to love someone who made you toast,” Nigel reminisces in voiceover.
But it’s perhaps more difficult for Nigel than it might be for most boys, considering that he spends his time before bed oohing and groaning over photos in cookbooks. Nigel’s a budding foodie, but when he tries to introduce his family to something as exotic and edible as pasta bolognese with parmesan, his father sniffs the cheese and says, “It smells like sick.” They end up having toast.
Nigel’s culinary concerns turn out to be the least of his worries, however. His mother’s ill and not long for this world, leaving him to battle alone against his boorish dad. Then, one day, he has two foes: Dad brings in a married, “common” cleaning woman named Mrs. Potter (Bonham Carter) to tidy up the house, and all too quickly he’s noticing her curves in addition to her way with a scrub brush. Soon they’re married and whisk Nigel to the country, away from his school, friends, and anything resembling an ally. At his new school, however, Nigel enrolls in a home economics class and learns to how to properly cook, immediately going pot-to-pot with the new Mrs. Slater in an attempt to win his father’s approval. He also secures a job at a local restaurant in order to get the hell out of the house.
It doesn’t quite qualify as food porn, but Toast nevertheless serves up some dishes worth salivating over. (That lemon meringue is spectacular.) The film’s biggest achievement is its look: Its loud clothing and flip hairstyles capture the ’60s just right. (The decision to go with an all-Dusty Springfield soundtrack is a bit more peculiar.) The cast members do the best with what they’re given, emphasizing their characters’ dominant personality traits effectively: Dad’s unbearable, Potter’s a shrew, Nigel’s exasperated. Unfortunately, a third-act turnaround involving Nigel’s gay co-worker coming feels tacked on (maybe because it literally is, in the film’s final five minutes). And while Clarkson knows how to make an audience salivate, Toast’s uncompelling story fails to transport. If you know who Nigel Slater is, you may be fascinated. Everyone else will shrug.