To adapt a story into a movie is to lionize the subject, say some critics. It’s the same school of thought that believes you can’t ever make an anti-war movie. To that end, some would say, in a Warholian manner, that every person deserves their own movie, for such a designation would suggest a humanist approach to the narrative of a single person from within the global culture.
But this is, on its surface, not at all humanist. For if everyone deserves lionization, then no one can truly be considered distinct, interesting. As Will Rogers once said, “We can't all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go.” So go ahead. Lift your head away from the computer and look around you. Who here is worth their own movie? The guy with the hat? The girl with the club foot? The child in her mother’s lap?
“Toast” opens in Wolverhampton, England during 1967. Plucky young Nigel Slater is stuck with his loving ma, a kind woman who dotes after him even as his cruel, insult-prone father stews. Nigel is difficult, mostly about food. His mother knows next to nothing about the kitchen -- placing canned goods in boiling water is the extent of her cooking skills -- yet she is responsible for feeding the three of them. More often than not, when she attempts to try something different, it backfires, forcing Plan B into action: thick, crunchy toast.
While his father has grown accustomed to the limited palette, Nigel, who is slowly developing an interest in the culinary arts, is frustrated with the monotony. He soon learns it’s simply far too unusual to prefer meals with a little more taste, as he’s reprimanded in school for not drinking milk, and cursed at home when he rejects the same re-heated secondhand mush. He attempts to teach his ailing mother about the kitchen (she has what filmgoers would refer to as The Cough), but food is burned, mismanaged, and deposited in the trash, replaced by, you guessed it, toast.
She is at least receptive to his ideas, which is more than what can be said about bumbling Dad, who stutters while delivering insults and demeans unfamiliar tastes. So when she succumbs to The Cough, Nigel feels as if he’s lost a potential cooking partner. Dad continues the same dietary decisions, though tensions grow between Nigel and his pop. Exacerbating the situation is the eccentric Mrs. Potter, a married woman who mysteriously shows up and begins to play homemaker.
Complicating a very adult situation, at least in Nigel’s eyes, is the fact that Mrs. Potter, prone to various, unannounced visits, is a magnificent cook. Nigel finds himself gob-smacked daily as she emerges from the kitchen with her latest creation. Which sets the stage for the primary conflict of the film, a conflict that, in many ways, simply does not make sense. What Nigel wants is his mother, which will simply not happen. What Nigel doesn’t want is the happiness of others. Which makes sense on the surface, as his father has freely welcomed this interloper without announcement and, with his bluster and yelling fits, regularly acts like a Harry Potter foster parent. And he doesn’t want any happiness for Mrs. Potter, who sees the boy as a challenge to her household superiority.
This situation is further muddled when we start to learn about the depths of Dad. Ken Stott’s portrayal of this desperately lonely man ends up being quite touching. While he cannot control his temper, and he clearly has nothing in common with his son, it’s a straightforward performance of a commoner. He just wants to get by. Mrs. Potter’s companionship is lovely, and she cooks and cleans. Who is he to complain? He may be an imposing figure, thick-rimmed glasses and dark sweaters over a round, red face, but during a late moment in conflict, he sheds tears during a particularly unproductive yelling match, begging for the end.
Rotund and peach-faced, he’s an odd match for the tall, limber Mrs. Potter. Though, due to their lack of chemistry (she’s perky and he’s desperate, she’s chipper and he’s morose), it’s hard to understand exactly what the stakes are. We know nothing about Mr. Potter and not a word is spoken about that marriage, though her antagonistic relationship with Nigel obscures her true intentions. Mrs. Potter sees this angry young boy, sullen over his mother’s death, and she decides he needs an in-house cook-off competitor. Her nasty response to this disagreeable boy makes it seem as if Potter is a malicious force, and played by Helena Bonham Carter, she seems only capable of delivering her lines with a hearty slice of ham, a phrase that has two meanings in this movie.
In this domestic war zone, we’re meant to assume it helps Nigel (mostly played by the stringy Freddie Highmore) grow into the man he is today. But the movie spins its wheels, building up scene after scene of yelling, and inorganic conflict, to the point where you wonder if we’re supposed to dislike Nigel, mistrust Mrs. Potter, or hope for some comeuppance for Nigel’s father. At points, the movie leans towards all three. Near the film’s close, we learn that Nigel is now seriously pursuing both cooking and other men, though it remains a massive surprise when we learn that Nigel went on to become a real-life celebrity chef and out gay man. Be thankful of the final text explains Nigel went on to thrive in the kitchen. Judging by the movie, you would assume he grew up to cook his own parents in a pie. [D+]