Once a Mod
We all come of age, and one catalyst for that can be the death of a parent. Do we do that through closure? While I don’t believe in the concept of closure, a parent’s passing is a seismic event. Ideally, it’s an event that ought to be faced and considered in as healthy a manner as possible.
Sometimes it’s not possible. My mother died when I was seven, and, for various reasons, her death became a thing that we generally didn’t talk about. As a result, “closure” never happened, and until fairly recently, her life was an almost completely closed book to me. Whether it was fair or right is irrelevant. It’s just the way it was.
My father’s death was different. It happened in my early twenties, so I had the presence of mind to write and deliver a eulogy at the funeral. A little later, I had the means to say goodbye in a more intimate manner. Despite an almost total lack of religious observation on my father’s part, I lit a candle for him in a small church in Kilkenny, Ireland.* It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it felt right, which tends to be the way these things work out.
Closure might not exist, but catharsis sure does. It’s an emotion that, when wielded properly by a smart filmmaker, can transform something mawkish into something stirring. Through a specific moment, it can remind us of our own experiences. The Pebble and the Boy is a spectacularly English film with some baffling** cultural aspects. At the heart of it is a journey and destination we can all recognize.
The film begins with an ending, the funeral of Phil. He was a husband, a father, a man of Manchester. More than that, he was a Mod. What is a Mod, you might ask? Scant research tells me the Mods were a working-class trend in England encompassing fashion, scooters (Yes, seriously), and musicians like Paul Weller and The Jam. It was a thing, and before you mock it, I’ll remind you that Americans have taken nonsense like flagpole sitting and Donald Trump seriously.
Anyway, Phil’s son is John (Patrick McNamee), a young man who, until now, has been primarily concerned with college. Their relationship was fine until Phil’s death in a scooter accident. As a crowd of older men on scooters ride in formation, John recognizes that he never really understood who his father was beyond the role of being his father.
The next day, John receives a knock on the door. His father’s prized Lambretta scooter, adorned with a baffling number of mirrors, has been delivered from the police impound lot. Whether it’s an omen, kismet, or simply a coincidence, John makes a decision. He’ll pack up his father’s ashes, and ride the Lambretta to the seaside town of Brighton, the spiritual home of the Mod movement. There, he’ll scatter Phil’s ashes in the sea.
Of course, there are breakdowns of both the mechanical and emotional varieties. One of them introduces John to Nicki (Sacha Parkinson), the daughter of a friend of Phil’s. Nicki can see that John could use a little company, and she’s keen to catch a Paul Weller concert in Brighton. From there, adventures will be had, romances will be sparked, and revelations will be unearthed.
Remember earlier how I mentioned I’m a dumb American, an ignorant Yank, a clownish septic?*** I thought it might be fun to see how far the journey that John takes actually is. From Manchester to Brighton, Google maps tells me that it’s a 259-mile straight shot on the M40 and that it will take a little less than five hours. While that doesn’t exactly feel like an epic journey comparable to Odysseus, let’s not forget that John makes his way there on a Lambretta scooter, a vehicle not known for its lightning speed.
But that doesn’t matter! The Pebble and the Boy is a sweet-natured coming-of-age comedy with a hefty dollop of anemoia.**** Director Chris Green, for the most part, keeps things light with John’s quest. The soundtrack bops with classic Mod tunes, providing bouncy energy, and Green rides that energy to keep the pace moving at a good clip. Green also makes an interesting choice in keeping the energy relatively upbeat while simultaneously showcasing John’s grief. That’s a smart choice because if you’ve ever been in the midst of a tough time, you likely have a moment where you can’t understand why the rest of the world isn’t blue like you are. That tonal split is smart, subtle, and appreciated.
There’s an old rule in writing that the more specific something is, the more universal it is. As you’ve likely gathered, I was flummoxed by all the talk of scooters, Mods, and other purely English minutiae. It doesn’t matter since Chris Green’s screenplay uses that specificity to illuminate something commonplace. As kids grow into adulthood, they’ll learn about their parents, the details and moments that are never discussed around the dinner table. They’ll learn that their parents are flawed, complicated, and generally far more interesting than they believed. Green takes that concept and uses it to create strong characterizations. It occasionally goes overboard and tiptoes into mawkishness, but only occasionally.
I enjoy slice-of-life films like this where the cast is playing normal people instead of types. That’s mostly the case here. For example, Max Boast plays Logan. He’s the son of Ronnie (Ricci Hartnett), an old pal of Phil’s. Ronnie shoves Logan out the door, ostensibly to let him know if John happens to find out anything troublesome about the old days. A lesser film would portray Logan as a sneak. Here, he couldn’t give a damn about his dad’s past or John’s grieving. Like a starving man at a buffet, he sees an opportunity to drink and chase girls and goes for it with gusto. I liked performances like that, and as all this manic life and energy swirls around Patrick McNamee’s John, he’s the still and quiet center of the film. He’s not a grump necessarily, just a young man grappling with a serious loss. The world keeps intruding, not letting him simply be sad.
And then there’s Sacha Parkinson as Nicki. She gives an energetic, smart, and charming performance that veers dangerously close to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. As a reminder, the MPDG shows up in movies with a sad-sack protagonist. Her job is to cheer him up and help him to rediscover the joy of life. The problem is, a MPDG has no agency or desires of her own. She only exists to help the main character. There’s a bit of this with the character of Nicki, and let’s be clear — this isn’t Parkinson’s fault. She’s doing the job she’s hired to do, and when the screenplay remembers to let her be a human being, she’s excellent. I’d like to see her do more and tackle a role with a stronger arc.
Closure doesn’t exist. Catharsis does, and the catharsis John seeks and receives in The Pebble and the Boy is a cinematic illusion that feels real. I liked this little film, its quirky rhythms, flawed characters, and immersion into a subculture I knew nothing about. Giant blockbusters don’t necessarily need your views. This film does.
*I always imagined my father’s shade watching and saying to others, “I was raised Catholic but I wasn’t actually Catholic. Did he not know that?”
**Cut me some slack, I’m a dumb American.
***I just learned that “septic” is a derogatory term for Americans used by the English and Australians. It comes from cockney rhyming slang and the rhyming of “Yank” and “septic tank.” Consider my septic mind blown.
****This is apparently a nearly brand-new word meaning “a nostalgic sense of longing for a past you yourself have never lived.” You can learn more about this concept here.