Toast Dir. SJ Clarkson

[Ruby Films; 2011]

Styles: coming-of-age, biopic
Others: Turning Green, Igby Goes Down, Scenes from Wily Wonka & The Chocolate Factory with Veruca Salt in them

Nigel Slater’s 2004 autobiography, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, was met with mixed reviews upon its release, owing mainly to the author’s way of juxtaposing intimate portraits of devastating and traumatic events in his childhood with rambling passages about British fast food, candy, and haute cuisine. While many more gentle readers found Slater’s frank discussion of his early homosexual exploits to be in bad taste, there was no denying the impact of the supremely visceral and pleasurable way he wrote about food, in particular the extent to which that food shaped him into the well-respected British culinary authority he remains. Aside from its title, a preoccupation with some of Dusty Springfield’s lesser works, and a few relatively obvious plot points, there’s a remarkable dearth of similarities between Slater’s book and SJ Clarkson’s filmed adaptation of it. So much so that the elements of the autobiography that allowed its protagonist to be an engaging and sympathetic character are missing entirely from Toast.

Whereas the Slater depicted in the book was undeniably terrible toward his stepmother, there were some mitigating factors, including a father prone to terrifyingly violent outbursts and Slater’s own mental anguish in coming to grips with his nascent homosexuality, which was presumably a pretty big deal in the suburban England of the mid 20th century. By portraying Slater’s father as more of a domestically challenged, helpless but well-meaning goof and Slater as merely a kid with supremely picky tastes, he comes off as a total dick, and the fact that he’s gay by the end of the movie isn’t enough to excuse his behavior as a spoiled brat par excellence. For a film that describes itself as ‘the ultimate nostalgia trip through everything edible in 1960s Britain,’ Toast’s attempts at Ephron-style food porn fall a little flat. Unwilling to alienate an American audience as much as Slater did in his own book (page after page of minutiae about candy bars only available for a short time in London, for example), the film essentially uses food as a method to carry the story, instead of as an integral part of it, which is the only way it could have saved itself from being anything other than a whiny coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist whose problems would make even Augusten Burroughs cry foul.

While Freddy Highmore’s performance as a teenage Slater is masterful and clearly indicates his innate timing and subtlety, his efforts and talent are wasted on a script that only encourages antipathy towards his character on the part of its audience. While the D.P. usually managed to tone down the G.E. Softlight™ effects where appropriate, and Helena Bonham Carter did the best she could with what she was given, Toast is a mediocre, bloated, and ultimately twee adaptation of a book that, while a bit twee itself and most definitely indulgent (it was an autobiography, after all), at least made palpable a very real connection between its central character’s troubled emotional state and his obsession with all sorts of food. In the film, the connection between his obsession with food and a hunger for safety, comfort, and love never quite comes across as anything more than a superficial quirk in a character who thoroughly disdains those eager to please him. Young Slater isn’t compelling as a broken or struggling character; he merely annoys as an entitled and boring one.

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