What We Did on our Holiday (Lionsgate, PG-13)

What-We-Did-On-Our-Holiday 75To its credit, What We Did on our Holiday actually succeeds pretty well despite its rather hackneyed premise.

 

 

 

 

What-We-Did-On-Our-Holiday 500

It was the cast that attracted me to What We Did on our Holiday—among them David Tennant, Rosamund Pike, and Billy Connolly—and it turns out I was on to something. While there’s nothing new in this film in terms of premise or story, and more than a few improbable plot developments and Scriptwriting 101 clichés that will test your patience, watching it turned out to be an enjoyable experience thanks primarily to some very believable performances from the actors, including the three child actors who play Tennant and Pike’s children and Connolly’s grandchildren.

The setup is bog standard for family comedies. Doug (Tennant) and Abi (Pike) McLeod are packing the kids (Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge, and Harriet Turnbull) into the care for a trip to the Scottish highlands to visit Doug’s father Gordie (Connolly). Doug’s more successful brother Gavin (Ben Miller) has planned a huge party for Gordie’s 75th birthday, and everyone’s been instructed to put on a good face and not mention that Gordie is dying of cancer. The fact that Doug and Abi have separated, due to Doug’s infidelity, is also a forbidden topic. In fact, this family has so many secrets that the oldest daughter, Lottie (Jones), asks her parents to tell her all the lies they must tell during the trip, so she can write them down in her notebook in the service of keeping them straight.

No points for guessing that nothing goes according to plan on this road trip. The McLeods are delayed in traffic, a rivalry between Doug and Gavin flares up, everyone seems to want to monkey with the seating chart for the big party, and the various secrets don’t stay secret for long (in fact, more are revealed). The kids are nervous and unhappy, and both sets of parents are more concerned with keeping up appearances than with really dealing with anyone’s needs or feelings. Fortunately, Gordie is on the same wavelength as the kids, dispensing gentle wisdom on topics such as when it is OK to lie and when it is positively compulsory, and is also OK with confirming that he has cancer, which is going to kill him sooner rather than later.

I don’t know if Roger Ebert included it in his list, but one of the hoariest of movie clichés is that true wisdom resides in children and grandparents, who must teach bickering parents about the real meaning of life. It’s like the ability to separate the important from the trivial automatically skips a generation. Or, perhaps, parents lose their mojo while dealing with the thorny realities of making a living and all the compromises that requires (in this latter theory, the children are too young to have had that experience, while the grandparents have been able to leave it behind). For whatever reason, this is a popular trope in Western culture—a little child shall lead them, by your pupils you are taught, and so on.

To its credit, What We Did on our Holiday actually succeeds pretty well despite its rather hackneyed premise. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who are jointly credited as writer and director, also created the popular British sitcom Outnumbered (two parents, three kids, get it?), which was noted for its semi-improvised scripts and naturalistic acting. I don’t know how much improvisation was involved in creating What We Did on our Holiday, but the interactions of the various characters feel very natural, with the real bobbles coming from the plotting. The need for significant things to happen in a limited amount of time, and for all the plot threads to be tied up by the end credits, works against the illusion of life created by this film’s acting and direction.

The directors also have a habit of relying too much on the natural beauty of the Highlands setting as an analogue to the true values held by Gordie, and too often cut unsubtly from squabbles in Gavin’s mansion to postcard-worthy views of the silent landscape. We get it: pettiness in the world of men, transcendence in nature is as much a cliché as wise children who must teach their parents. For all that the lessons are laid on with a trowel, however, What We Did on our Holiday comes up on the positive side of the balance, as an enjoyable viewing experience if not a truly great one. | Sarah Boslaugh

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