It can be a dangerous game when you sit down to watch a movie expecting one film, but get an entirely different one out of it. Usually, that feeling of cognitive dissonance leaves one feeling confused at best and angry and betrayed at worst. But sometimes, a filmmaker reminds you that it is they, after all, that are in charge, and they take you to a completely different place than anticipated. And it is wonderful.
Enter Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's What We Did on Our Holiday, a film that starts out familiarly enough as a paint-by-numbers, dysfunctional family comedy, then skews absolutely ridiculous -- and actually ends up a better film for it.
The movie opens on a frantic scene: Harried couple Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) are desperately trying to corral their three wayward children long enough to get them and suitcases into the car for the long trip to Scotland, where the family is headed to celebrate Doug's father's birthday. The movie quickly sets up that all is not right between Abi and Doug, and the couple has, in fact, separated. To spare Doug's terminally ill father the pain of the news, the fractured couple decides to pretend all is well for the weekend, much to the dismay of their overly-honest kids.
They arrive in Scotland and meet Doug's uptight and controlling brother, Gavin (Ben Miller) and his meek wife, Margaret (Amelia Bullmore), along with Gordie, Doug and Gavin's free spirit of a father, played by the irrepressible Billy Connolly. From there, things go decidedly awry, with the kids' open, guileless honesty revealing Doug and Abi's business to escalating calamity.
It feels truly strange to say of a movie that boasts both David Tennant and Rosamund Pike in it that it truly belongs to their three kids, but there you have it. Other than grandpa Gordie, it's the children's world; the adults just happen to exist in it. They're quickly sketched out just enough to get a sense of their personalities, which, in this movie, are inextricable from their fatal flaws: Doug is too passive and caves too easily; Abi is mouthy and impatient; Gavin is a control freak; Margaret has no spine.
But that's okay, because, as grandpa Gordie assures the studious, overlooked Lottie (Emilia Jones), we're all just ridiculous, in the end. We all have our flaws, and we're all just muddling by the best we can. Indeed, it's the scenes between Gordie and Lottie, and the other two grandkids, quirky little Jess (Harriet Turnbull) and walking encyclopedia Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) that are the heart of the film.
When a tragedy happens, it's not the adults who save the day, but the children. Their well-intended, but ill-thought-out solution befits the touching weirdness of the film, but poses a host of problems for the adults, who are busy sorting out what they're going to say to the arriving partygoers and how they'll say it.
And thats a recurring theme of the movie: the truth. Not necessarily just when to tell it, but when not to, as well. The adults are doing the best job that they can, but their sins of omission and little white lies, intended to shield their kids from pain, just make things worse. But interestingly, the film doesn't go to the expected narrative of preaching the evils of lying. It also takes time to point out that there are times when telling the truth is equally as hurtful and unnecessary. Sometimes, as Gordie once again explains to Lottie, we keep from telling things, even if they're true, if the result is that it will hurt others. Sometimes, a lie is forgivable if it's told with good intentions.
So it's fitting that the gut-check moment for all of the adults comes in the form of Lottie, who repeats things about each of them that her grandpa told her in confidence. They are things he almost certainly never would have voiced to his children aloud. But it works. In the end, it takes a child blurting out something that probably never would have been said by an adult to say exactly what needed to be heard.
What We Did on Our Holiday is currently in limited theaters.