What We Did On Our Holiday sets up a sturdy comic scenario and then proceeds to head in another direction altogether—one that’s nearly impossible to anticipate, making the film much more of a goofy delight than would have seemed likely at the outset. Here’s the movie that’s being advertised: Abi (Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike) and Doug (David Tennant, Doctor Who’s 10th Doctor), a couple with three small kids, have separated, and are planning to divorce. They’ve temporarily reunited, however, because Doug doesn’t want to tell his father, Gordie (Billy Connolly), about the split, since it’ll break the old man’s heart and he’s dying of cancer anyway. Off the family journeys to Scotland for Gordie’s 75th birthday party, with the kids, who range in age from 9 to about 4, having been instructed not to tell anyone there that Mommy and Daddy are living in separate houses. This particularly troubles the eldest, Lottie (Emilia Jones), a neurotic girl who obsessively jots everything down in a notebook and doesn’t like the thought of having to lie to people. And so the stage is set for some mild laughs about the attempt to keep the secret.
That might have worked perfectly well, but the writing-directing team of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin—well known in the U.K. for their popular sitcom Outnumbered—have something else in mind. Not long after the family arrives in Scotland, Abi and Doug, who had seemed to be the main characters, all but disappear for a long stretch, as the story detours to follow Gordie and his grandkids on a trip to a local beach. Most of this material appears to have been at least semi-improvised, which is apparently Hamilton and Jenkin’s modus operandi on their TV show (which also features three kids). Connolly tones down his usual shtick considerably, coming across as warm-hearted and slightly irascible, and he has a fantastic rapport with all three of his co-stars, who talk and behave like actual little kids (to the point where the youngest, played by Harriet Turnbull, frequently just wanders out of scenes). Then Gordie suddenly drops dead, and the kids’ decision about what to do—inspired by a joking remark Gordie had made to the boy, Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge)—is so magnificently absurd that it very nearly makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately, it’s also so absurd that the movie never quite recovers from it. The other adults re-enter the story shortly thereafter, and the last half-hour or so struggles to mine jokes from their efforts to deal with what’s happened, complete with a visit from a stern social worker (Celia Imrie) who reads Lottie’s notebook and makes vague threats about what may come of her “assessment.” A bland subplot about whether Abi will take a job that would move the kids a three-hour train ride away from Doug also gets a lot more play. All the same, this film is required viewing for anyone who wonders why children in movies are never as believably funny as children in real life. Few adult writers are creative enough to dream up the hilariously left-field questions small children ask, or the observations they make; Hamilton and Jenkin are smart enough to let them write their own dialogue, for the most part, and the result is downright endearing. At times, What We Did On Our Holiday even resembles a peacetime version of John Boorman’s 1987 child’s-eye World War II memoir Hope And Glory, with its disarming mix of death and euphoria. That’s high praise indeed.