The genre owes a lot to films like Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2001) in which Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtney, David Hemmings and Ray Winstone are the old friends who set out to fulfil Jack Dodds’ (Michael Caine) wish to end his days by the sea in Margate with his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) or to Emilio Estevez’s The Way (2010) in which Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) sprinkles his son Daniel’s ashes along El Camino de Santiago where the boy met his end, or even Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) in which cantankerous Hector (Sam Neil) is on the run with recalcitrant foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) who, unbeknownst to Hec is carry the ashes of the old man’s wife to the place ‘...where the earth wets the cloak of the sky...’ where she wished to be laid to rest.
The reason to remind ourselves of these familiar patterns is that each new ‘cremains roadtrip’ movie should do more than simply employ the cookie-cutter by changing the identities of the deceased, the travellers and the destination. Two of the three films I’ve seen recently (both showing at the 2021 British Film Festival) don’t quite manage that – in Jules Williamson’s Off The Rails, Sally Phillips, Jenny Seagrove and Kelly Preston (in her final movie appearance) receive the news ‘Big Chill’ style, that their friend Anna has died and left them tickets to ride the European Interrail to the Festival of Light in Spain which the four of them had always promised they would do (yes, there’s no actual ashes in this film but the tropes are pretty much the same) – meanwhile in Gillies MacKinnon’s The Last Bus, Timothy Spall is the grieving widower who comes up with a plan to use his pensioner bus-pass to travel free of charge on local buses all the way from John O’Groats (the most northerly tip of England) to Land’s End (the most southerly tip) so he can scatter his wife’s ashes in the place where they first fell in love. Both these films play out in exactly the way we suspect they will, relying on the tropes of earlier, much better films to carry them on their long, plodding journeys full of no surprises to get where we all knew they were going from the start.
The third film, however, is the pick of the bunch and finds some freshness in the well-worn path underscored by some pretty good, nostalgic music (that is, if you’re a fan of ‘The Modfather’, Paul Weller).
THE PEBBLE AND THE BOY takes its title from the Paul Weller song of the same name (I’ll admit that I had to look that up – I’m afraid I wasn’t into The Jam nor the whole mod revival thing). It opens at the funeral of Phil Parker, a former ‘real’ mod from the English era of the mods and the rockers in the sixties and seventies. Phil’s less than glorious end seems to have come about when a bus knocked him off his Lambretta scooter. We soon understand that the scooter is emblematic of being a mod (along with sharp looking suits, stylish haircuts, parkers, RAF symbols, multiple rear-view mirrors and so on). There’s an impressive honour guard of old mods on scooters to see Phil off (no actors here, they’re the real thing if the end credits and the occasional sneaky glance at the camera are anything to go by). Soon after, we meet Phil’s son John (Patrick MacNamee) who, it seems, didn’t really know his dad that well, but he knows enough about the mods to protest at the idea that he might be one himself.
Nevertheless, when his dad’s Lambretta (complete with a dozen or more rear-view mirrors – enough to make one wonder how Phill didn’t see the bus coming) is returned to him (in pretty good nick, it has to be said, after losing out in that bus-versus-scooter incident) John gets it into his head that it would be a fitting tribute to scatter his dad’s ashes in Brighton, the spiritual home of the mods. The trip is made all the more significant by the discovery of two tickets concealed in his dad’s parker pocket – they are, of course, for a Paul Weller concert in Brighton on the coming weekend.
And so, John sets off on his ‘cremains roadtrip’ to the tune of a Paul Weller song or two. Along the way he encounters some of his dad’s old friends. First up is Deano (Jamie Lomas) who fixes the scooter when it breaks down. While his scooter’s being fixed, John meets Deano’s daughter Nicki (Sacha Parkinson) who rebels against her dad by joining John on his trip (she has her own scooter, but not quite as decked out as John’s). There’s a great scene soon after when John and Nicky pull up at a pub for lunch, only to find a group of bikers are already there. Of course, in his dad’s day, kids on motorbikes wearing leather jackets (aka rockers) were the mortal enemies of the mods and their ongoing conflicts were the cause of what became known as ‘the great moral panic’ about England’s teenagers. John realises that not only is he on his dad’s Lambretta, but he’s also wearing his dad’s parker, complete with union jacks and RAF insignia - all emblems of the mods. But this is John’s generation not Phil’s and the bikers led by Zack (Rick S Carr) are not the aggressive, confrontational rockers that John fears they might be. Quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of a motif throughout the film, embodied in a way by the music of Paul Weller; that the mod revivalists and the mods themselves are not only a generation apart, but the antagonism and violence that characterised the real mods is only of its time.
Later that day, they meet another of Phil’s old friends; Ronnie (Ricci Hartnett) and his wife Sonia (Patsy Kensit) who put him up overnight. Here they find themselves saddled with a third traveller, Ronnie and Sonia’s boy Logan (Max Boast) who’s a bit of an arrogant, loudmouthed liability. He’s also a threat to the potential of some sort of relationship between John and Nicky.
Of course, all these meetings with his dad’s old friends start to reveal the man that John never knew. Eventually, though, when they make it to Brighton, it’s one of those revelations that throws a spanner in the works.
The Pebble and the Boy is not just a ‘cremains roadtrip’, it’s a journey of discovery as an insecure son slowly comes to learn about the man his father was and, in the process, discovers himself. It’s also a fascinating glimpse back into the world of the mods and the rockers (the real ones not the revivalists). I’m sure that for aficionados of either generation of mods, this film will delight with its many references to The Jam, and to the imagery of the mods and to mod culture as represented by things like Franc Roddam’s film of The Who’s Quadrophenia (1979). But a film can’t sustain itself on Easter eggs and references to pop culture alone. It has to be a good story, and this is. In particular, the seemingly random threads of many of the encounters along the way are cleverly woven together at the end in a very satisfying way.
The performances are uniformly good, especially from our three heroes. Perhaps, MacNamee’s performance falls a bit short of the more confident and engaging turns by Parkinson and especially Boast, but then he’s meant to be a bit wet so maybe it’s just the ticket. The music is well used, the twists are nicely surprising and the Production Design by Helen Watson is, as you might expect of a story with such visual potential, terrific. Writer-Director Chris Green, who’s had a big year with two releases – this and Me Myself and Di (a Bridget Jonesque rom com written by Samantha Lloyd) – has created a film that is fresh, funny and entertaining. And if you like the music of Paul Weller and the iconic bands he was in - The Jam and Style Council - then you’ll be humming along the way. Even though the father-son connection between Phil and John was tenuous at the outset, the mod culture proves irresistible to John who, by film’s end, seems to have inherited more than just his dad’s house and motor-scooter. As we are reminded all throughout the film, ‘once a mod always a mod’ and, for John, that mantra might just be hereditary.