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aka Breaking Free

D: Patrick Makin / 78m

Cast: Alexander Perkins, Edyta Budnik, Zara Day, Gary Heasman, Josh Wood

It should be a good day for Toby Simpson (Perkins), but his birthday is lining up to be anything but. His stewardess girlfriend, Hannah (Day), is either accusing him of seeing someone else or demanding he finish work early so he can take her to the airport; the train he normally takes to work is cancelled and the replacement coach service makes him late, something his boss at Sun Soaps, Terry (Heasman), goads him about; Terry refuses to let him go early, and so he’s forced to head home on the replacment coach – which will make him late in meeting Hannah. On the return journey he gets talking to festival goer Renata (Budnik); when the coach reaches its destination, Toby discovers that he’s lost his keys, his phone and his wallet. Realising that they’ve been stolen by someone on the coach who was wearing a purple hat, and that they’re heading to the festival, Renata persuades Toby to let her help him retrieve his belongings. Once inside the festival grounds however, the possibility of finding the thief amongst thousands of music lovers becomes less and less likely. But Renata is determined that Toby shouldn’t give up…

The debut of writer/director Patrick Makin, Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson is a light-hearted and easy-going romantic comedy that in time-honoured fashion, takes its put-upon central character on a journey of self-discovery and personal redemption. It does all this amiably and with a great deal of subdued charm, and though there’s nothing new in its boy-gets-treated-badly-by-everyone, boy-meets-girl-who-believes-in-him, boy-regains-self-respect scenario, by offering viewers a pleasant enough diversion from more standard fare, it’s far more successful than might be expected. Toby is a classic under-achiever, unable to stand up for himself, and when he tries to be more assertive he ends up worse off than he was before. Makin and Perkins make Toby a sympathetic character from the start, and even when he’s flailing around trying to justify his weak-willed behaviour (or excuse it), the sense of quiet desperation he’s projecting remains sincere and awkwardly appealing. It makes the inevitable romance with Renata all the more credible, even though their relationship is a movie staple. Thanks to the quality of Makin’s script, and of Perkins’ performance, Toby’s journey of self-discovery is amusing and warm-hearted, and because there are no detours into melodrama or more serious territory, it retains that subdued charm that helps it along so much.

Shot during the set up of Wiltshire’s End of the Road festival (and careful not to show any of the artists who played there in order to avoid any copyright problems), Makin’s debut is a good example of what can be achieved on a very small budget but with plenty of forward planning. Utilising a number of visual techniques to make it look as if Toby and Renata are actually “there”, the movie uses some of the energy from the festival as a way of adding a sense of urgency to the plot device of Toby trying to retrieve his personal effects, and the short amount of time that he and Renata have together. As the couple thrown together by the movies’ idea of fate, Perkins and Budnik have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ growing relationship convincing, while their portrayals adhere to the idea that sometimes the shortest but most intense connections are the ones that stay with us, or influence us, the most. The romantic elements are handled with confidence and a clear sense of affection on Makin’s side, while the humour stems from the characters rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. With a great indie soundtrack working well to support the action (An Horse’s Trains and Tracks is a particular standout), those lucky enough to see this won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 8/10 – though its basic storyline is as old as the hills, and has been done a million times over, there’s still much to enjoy about Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson, not the least of which is the performances of its two leads, and the happy-wise approach adopted by its writer/director; sometimes keeping it simple is the best formula for success, and by doing this, the movie overcomes its lack of originality by having characters you can care about, and by being unrepentently good-natured throughout.