The Festival, a new comedy from some of the Inbetweeners team, was not shown in advance to critics, which is rarely shorthand for “we have a masterpiece on our hands.” That explains how I found myself in an east London multiplex at 10.40am for the first screening on opening day. But don’t read too much into the fact that I was the only person in the entire cinema – this is a film about debauched university graduates attending a music festival, so its target audience was most likely still in bed. When they eventually wake and enjoy a late breakfast of Coco Pops and weed before heading out to the cinema, what they will find is a film that works up its meagre material into some unexpectedly charming entertainment. If “charming” is the right description for something incorporating the full complement of bodily fluids and a dose of bestiality for good measure.
The early scenes are inauspicious. Despite having ushered the second Inbetweeners movie toward its staggering box-office success, the director Iain Morris appears at first to have forgotten the difference between TV and film comedy: there’s an awkward stiffness that gives the opening 20 minutes the air of a sitcom with the laugh-track turned off. In an eerily quiet, awkwardly-staged sequence at a graduation ceremony, where Nick (the likeable former Inbetweener Joe Thomas) has been dumped by his girlfriend Caitlin (Hannah Tointon), there are long, optimistic gaps for the audience’s laughter without the material in the script (by Joe Parham and Keith Akushie) to warrant them. A contrived semen-related gag that was done better and nastier in Todd Solondz’s Happiness fails to inspire much confidence.
Things pick up, though, with the arrival of Amy (Claudia O’Doherty), an irrepressible Australian en route – as Nick and his pal Shane (Hammed Animashaun) are – to a three-day music festival in Leeds. Amy’s undaunted optimism is expertly modulated by O’Doherty, who keeps her just the right side of irksome as she hangs out in toilet queues to make friends and approaches the loss of a mobile phone with a sobriety worthy of NCIS (“The first 48 hours are crucial…”) Her ebullience plays well off Thomas’s prissiness and Animashaun’s ingenuous buffoonery; if she doesn’t get her own spin-off, there’s no justice.
The screenplay gains in confidence the deeper it delves into the the festival experience – not just the obvious drugs-and-tents-and-toilets jokes but some surprisingly acute observations about the dark underside of the peace-and-love vibe. The scene in which Nick is turned on by the crowd over an innocuous misdemeanour is especially sharp in evoking the ugliness beneath the veneer of festival bonhomie. What’s also unusual is that the movie gets funnier as it goes on: an unusual development for many comedies, which tend merely to throw in their lot with mania and hope for the best. Most of the comic highlights arrive in the final 30 minutes: there’s a genuinely wondrous flight of fantasy in which Nick daydreams about a future life of domestic bliss, and a couple of sustained gross-out sight-gags, one involving a nipple piercing, the other an unfortunate reaction to shellfish. By this time, almost without noticing it, our affection for the characters has been fortified and their triumphs and humiliations have actually started to matter. After the initial sticky patch, audiences are likely to find themselves amenable and even enthusiastic – much like the festival experience, in fact.
‘The Festival’ is on release.