If Nick Hornby had considered structuring High Fidelity like 500 Days of Summer, the outcome might look something like the smart, music-centric British romantic comedy Modern Life Is Rubbish. Daniel Jerome Gill’s lighthearted debut feature will certainly appeal to pop culture geeks as well as indie-movie lovers once it scores a U.S. release or shows up on hipster-skewing streaming services.
The title of Gill’s film originates with Brit-pop superstar group Blur’s 1993 album and represents the worldview of anti-corporate London rock guitarist Liam (Josh Whitehouse), who refuses to use a cellphone or stoop to social media lest he contaminate his high ideals. Rewinding from his painful breakup with Natalie (Freya Mavor), Gill fixes their meet-cute in a downtown vinyl shop, where Liam hangs out so he can conveniently chat up the lasses. His one-liner putdown of Blur lands flat with Natalie, who happens to be a huge fan, but when he subsequently catches up with her at a nightclub, she’s more approachable. Their shared love of music leads to romance and it’s not long before they’re a happy couple ready to move in together.
Not as dire as it sounds.
Tensions develop, however, as frontman Liam and his two bandmates struggle to develop a signature sound and land a manager for their group, Headcleaner. His reluctance to get even a part-time job leaves Natalie with the burden of shared living expenses as she slowly works her way up in the creative department of a London ad agency. As she begins to realize she’s given up her own dreams of becoming an artist to support Liam’s uncertain musical career, Natalie starts to develop second thoughts about her life choices, leading to an unavoidable crisis.
Gill structures the nonlinear film as a series of nested flashbacks intercut with the contemporary timeline as the lovers’ relationship gradually frays. Liam’s self-absorption, which seemed at first like creative genius to Natalie, loses its charm as success continues to elude him and she starts to see the advantages of a professional career and stable lifestyle. The band’s struggles are somewhat generic, though, with the usual manager problems, songwriting frustrations and disappointing professional obscurity.
It helps that Whitehouse is an actual guitarist, lending the film’s frequent performance scenes a requisite air of authenticity. Equally convincing, his representation of Liam’s habitual disdain for corporate marketing persuasively sets up the relationship conflict with Natalie, who’s constantly immersed in pop culture as she develops ad campaigns directed at bored millennials.
Mavor and Whitehouse, both of whom appear poised to break out after a series of smaller roles in TV and indie features, demonstrate a believable chemistry, but more important perhaps, a convincing hostility after their breakup. Once Headcleaner tastes success and things begin to turn around for Liam thanks to a viral video, the couple’s rapprochement exhibits a clever whimsicality that ends the film on an appropriately bittersweet note.
Selected tracks from The Smiths, Oasis, Radiohead and other ‘80s and ‘90s bands help burnish Headcleaner’s Brit-pop associations and lend the plot a cool sense of nostalgia.
Production companies: Piccadilly Pictures, Serotonin Films
Cast: Josh Whitehouse, Jessie Cave, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh, Freya Mavor, Tom Riley
Director: Daniel Jerome Gill
Screenwriter: Philip Gawthorne
Producer: Dominic Norris
Executive producers: Christopher Figg, Peter Hampden, Simon Laub, Norman Merry, Samuel Potter, Robert Whitehouse
Director of photography: Tim Sidell
Music: Orlando Roberton
Editor: Peter Christelis
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Sales: The Exchange