Set during one dazed summer in a South Yorkshire mining town in 1994, Pond Life, an adaptation of the stage play by Richard Cameron, adds a charming sense of British-ness to the coming of age micro genre I call ‘long, hot summer’. Typically dominated by American films like Stand by Me and George Washington, nothing has quite captured the mugginess and hopelessness of our British Summertime before.
In its wash of tracksuits, tape recorders and Walkmans, Pond Life grapples with its characters’ aimlessness outside of the school/college routine as a group of misfits band together one summer night to try to catch a legendary giant Carp in one of the decoy ponds surrounding their estate. While this element might sound like a sprinkling of magical realism in the vein of Burton’s Big Fish, director Bill Buckhurst’s film is less about the legendary fish but more about its quite large cast of teens and young adults putting aside their differences to come together to achieve something in a summer that seems to be lacking in spirit.
The cast can easily be separated into two categories: the younger teens with a spirited optimism and the older ones that are bogged down by the new realities of adulthood. Heading up this ensemble is Pogo (Esme Creed-Miles), a whimsical young lady whose mental age doesn’t appear to coincide with her physical one. She parades the streets of her town armed with a tape recorder, microphone and red cellophane taped to her eyes − literally seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. She moves through the streets recording the sounds of everything and everyone she meets; street dogs, passers by and friends. Her friends, namely the older Trevor (Tom Varey) who she sees as a big brother figure, has dreams of getting out of the town. He’s one of few that share this sentiment, his sister Cassie (Daisy Edgar-Jones) for example wants nothing more than to spend her days making out with her older boyfriend, the brutish Maurice (Abraham Lewis). This fact is much to the dismay of Pogo’s other friend Malcolm (Angus Imrie), a hilarious shell-suit wearing misfit that is so head over heels for Cassie he tries to astral project into her bedroom every night. Finally, on the fringes, observing these developing and confusing relationship dynamics are Shane (Gianlucca Galluci) and Dave (Ethan Wilkie), the youngest of the group and the most entertaining to watch as they explore their growing interest in girls and boobs and the mystery of women.
The characters are for the most part, undoubtedly charming and quirky, but there is a strange disconnect in their relationships and dynamics that sometimes lets the film down. There are moments where it seems like none of these people, bar Pogo and Trevor, even know each other at all, there is little backstory that makes their relationships feel fleshed out.
Buckhurst does manage to find a fantastic undercurrent in the rise of New Labour however, Tony Blair’s face dominates every TV screen and billboard, the adults all seems to be discussing it and making jokes. All the while the kids seem completely unaware of the effect that Thatcher Britain had on their mining town, of the reasons why their summers seem so stagnant and unfulfilled, why the streets are empty and shop fronts are boarded up. It’s a loose thread in the film that doesn’t particularly play into the teenagers’ narrative at all but establishes a well-oiled sense of time, place and politics that is essential to understand the lives of these teenagers outside of purely aesthetic principals and a needle-drop of school-disco classic ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’.
As a first-time director coming from a theatre background, Buckhurst keeps his adaptation minimal to focus solely on these select characters, background interactions are limited, and a picture of the wider world is excluded. Thankfully, this very theatre-based story works within the context of a coming-of-age story, where these kids see the world as revolving assuredly around them alone and don’t completely understand the nuances of adult life, something that Trevor thankfully peeps open a crack in the blinds to. Pond Life is an important addition to the British coming-of-age canon, its quiet and meandering slice-of-life approach allows its young cast to shine in a political landscape that would do anything to dull it.
Dir: Bill Buckhurst
Scr: Richard Cameron
Cast: Tom Varey, Esme Creed-Miles, Angus Imrie, Gianlucca Galluci, Ethan Wilkie, Abraham Lewis, Daisy Edgar-Jones
Prd: Dominic Dromgoole, Rienkje Attoh, Alexandra Breede, Emma Green
DOP: Nick Cooke
Music: Richard Hawley
Run time: 100 minutes
Pond Life is available on DVD and VOD on August 26th