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Movie Review: Toast (NR)



Toast Movie PosterKernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalhalf-popcorn-kernal

Length: 96 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR, but probably closest to a PG-13.

Age Appropriate for: 15+. There’s cursing; some nudity, including a man’s butt; a few kisses and implied sexual situations; and some sexually focused talk.

British food personality Nigel Slater gets his own biography in ‘Toast,’ with the always adorable Freddie Highmore doing it right as Slater’s aching teenage self.

By Roxana Hadadi

One meal has never changed my life. But that’s why I’m not a cook and Nigel Slater, the British food personality who is basically a huge frickin’ deal over in Europe, is — a big enough deal, in fact, that he gets his own biographical movie, “Toast.”


One meal has never changed my life. But that’s why I’m not a cook and Nigel Slater, the British food personality who is basically a huge frickin’ deal over in Europe, is — a big enough deal, in fact, that he gets his own biographical movie, “Toast.”

Originally a British made-for-TV film that aired on BBC One last December, “Toast” is finally getting a theatrical release in the United States, bringing joy to foodies who may have read Slater’s autobiography, “Toast” (which the film is based on), or any of the columns he’s written in Marie Claire and The Observer Magazine, or watched any of his TV shows, like “A Taste of My Life” — which seems a bit like ABC’s new “The Chew.” Slater’s a passionate man, committed to the links between food, family and memories, and “Toast” is certainly illuminating; not only does it show the tempestuous relationship he had with his father and stepmother, but also how cooking served as a coping mechanism for the frustrated teen.

We may brush off home economics classes as a waste of time in our high schools now, but “Toast” subtly and nonpolitically makes a case for why we should reconsider that decision. The movie isn’t all glitter and frosting — in fact, it’s mostly more tortured than that — but to see how far Slater has come, partly thanks to those cooking courses, seems like solid evidence for reevaluating how we’ve regimented our education system to push out such fields.

Anyway, back to “Toast.” The film splits its time between Slater’s childhood and teenage years, beginning with his youth in Penn, West Midlands, where he lived with his suffering-from-asthma mother and unyielding, short-tempered and often cruel father. As a 9-year-old, Slater (played first by Oscar Kennedy) knows he’s being denied something wonderful because his mother (Victoria Hamilton) can’t cook; instead, she buys various cans from the corner store, boils them in a pot and then slaps them on a plate for dinner. Slater plays by acting out fantasies of buying delicious ingredients for homemade meals, and he learns about the integrity and deliciousness of fresh fruits and vegetables from his family’s gardener, Josh (Matthew McNulty). Just because a radish is a little dirty doesn’t mean it will kill you, Josh says, and so sparks Slater’s growing interest in things that come from the ground, not from a tin.

But living with a dying mother and a furious father (Ken Stott) isn’t an easy thing for a child to endure, and Slater learns the hard way to never question his dad — especially when most of the time, his father is calling him a “stupid, ignorant boy.” More impactful on Slater’s life than his father’s rage, however, is the most enduring dish his mother ever made: toast. Warm bread and salty butter, so often a dinner in Slater’s home, becomes undeniably linked to his vision of his mother — so when his father starts taking interest in the family’s new cleaning lady, Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), Slater keeps his memories tight.

Mrs. Potter may be a wonderful cook, able to whip up amazing dishes like a perfect lemon meringue pie, but to Slater, she’s a bona fide interloper. Her marital situation, her cooking genius — both are a mystery. And as Slater learns he may just be stuck with her, his childhood interest in cooking becomes something more, an opportunity not only to build on what his mother couldn’t but also a chance to swipe away some of the loathsome Mrs. Potter’s secrets.

Director S.J. Clarkson gives the film just the right amount of whimsy: the subject matter is often bleak, but Clarkson handles memories and fantasy sequences quite effectively, framing one of Slater’s most formative moments with his mother in a way that will break your heart. It’s not all humdrum, though — Clarkson also adds in pops of color that emphasize the transformative nature of food, from the startling purplish red of the first radish Slater eats to the puffy white meringue and jarringly yellow lemon of Mrs. Potter’s signature pie. And Clarkson is aided by Lee Hall, who adapted Slater’s autobiography and also wrote similar British coming-of-age tale “Billy Elliot” — he gives Slater’s confined childhood, tough school days and eventually illuminating teenage years a believable narrative.

Clarkson and Hall benefit, though, from having wonderful actors: The young Kennedy never makes Slater’s childhood interest in food seem like a cheap gimmick, even when he’s moaning over the pictures in a cookbook, and Highmore (wasted in this year’s teen romance “ The Art of Getting By”) brings a wide-eyed-but-determined steeliness to Slater’s later years. And, of course, there’s Bonham Carter, who is so wonderful at being detestable — remember, she was the demented Bellatrix Lestrange in this summer’s final “Harry Potter” film? — but is most effective here because she dials back the crazy. With a mocking sneer for Slater and a seductive smile for his father, Bonham Carter wonderfully captures the kind of vile woman Mrs. Potter must have been.

But the film’s most significant downfall is when it ties in other facets of Slater’s life that don’t directly coincide with his rivalry with Mrs. Potter, such as his realization of his homosexuality. It’s a subplot that gets barely five minutes of screentime, and needed more to become more fully integrated into the rest of the film.

Nevertheless, the honesty “Toast” delivers in less than 100 minutes is more than we get from some of our own American food stars — how much do we know about people like Bobby Flay or Rachael Ray, really? We get their PR-approved spins about their favorite dishes, restaurants and pets, but “Toast” feels more like a confessional than one long infomercial for Slater’s brand. There’s a sincere sadness in the film that no Food Network star has shown us so far, a bittersweet integrity that “Toast” quite wonderfully wears on its chef’s jacket sleeve.  

“Toast” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Northwest D.C.

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