Wisecracking kids take centre stage in this disarmingly funny film from the writer/director team of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who’ve already pulled the same trick on BBC sitcom Outnumbered. However, there’s a bit of heft to go along with the hilarity in this story where the naive natter of youth is employed to break the last taboo – death, that is.
Billy Connolly graciously plays the ailing grandfather who manages a quite impressive feat by holding his own against the little scene-stealers. Five-year-old Harriet Turnbull is the youngest and most outrageous of the kids, with Emilia Jones playing her serious-minded big sister (in a quite touching performance) and Bobby Smalldridge sandwiched in-between, often trying to fight his way out in a Viking helmet.
The marquee names are David Tennant and Rosamund Pike, but they’re kept in the background where they bicker endlessly, on the brink of divorce.
A short, shambolic road trip kicks off the action as the family head from London to the Scottish Highlands to put on a show of togetherness and celebrate grandpa’s birthday. Once there, the old man takes the bairns out to a remote beach and there’s a sharp left turn into Weekend at Bernie’s territory.
There are a few jarring moments, but overall Hamilton and Jenkin manage to craft a story that is both poignant and delightfully silly. It isn’t just the slapstick elements that tickle the funny bone, but the children’s off-kilter logic in trying to solve the logistical problem that faces them.
An ill-considered plan leads to other amusing complications, but rather than plunge the film too deeply into farce, Hamilton and Jenkin keep their sights fixed on the emotional ups and downs that force the children to gradually accept what has happened. In fact they’re quite philosophical about the whole situation, teaching the grown-ups a thing or two about grace under pressure and “playing nice” with people you don’t like. Ben Miller ups the laugh count as Tennant’s wealthier, more successful and supremely irritating older brother, while Amelia Bullmore, as Miller’s long-suffering wife, revels in a nervous breakdown.
While the story is shaped by obvious life lessons and the usual observations about dysfunctional families, it is refreshingly funny to see these little dramas played out through innocent eyes. Bad behaviour by the grown-ups is underscored by the children’s candour but, inevitably, Tennant and Pike asking them to stay tight-lipped about the marriage breakdown is never going to work.
With so much angst in the air, there may have been a temptation to dial up the sentimentality towards the end. Thankfully, Hamilton and Jenkin avoid that pitfall, too. Instead they offer a resolution that gently tweaks the heartstrings. Definitely a film you’ll want to take the kids to see and if you learn anything, it’s that you should skip the sugary popcorn and orange squash.