As A Bump Along the Way begins Pamela (Bronagh Gallagher), a good-time single mum, is celebrating her 44th birthday and having a very good time with a young man, a local plumber named Barry.
He lavishes her with praise in an effort to get his van a rockin’. The pair joke and fool around. A view of the outside of the van and pained dialogue speaks to an uncomfortable but universal truth: sex in a vehicle is always awkward and never as fun as it seems in theory.
Soon after, Pamela is faced with another uncomfortable and awkward situation: she’s dropped off miles away from her house. Barry is now wary of being seen with the older woman he was so enamoured of mere moments ago. The camera holds on a shot of Pamela standing unsteadily at the edge of the frame, her expression somewhere between amazement and misery.
But another shock is coming Pamela’s way in the days that follow. She’ll be getting a late birthday present in nine months’ time. With a baby on the horizon, she must take stock of her life and face some home truths.
In A Bump Along the Way, despite the potential for a bleak kitchen-sink, baby-crisis drama, we see instead a warm-hearted, often cosy, and very funny film.
That’s not to suggest that the film – directed by Shelly Love and written by Tess McGowan – treats its characters as figures of fun. More that the filmmakers couch their subject matter in comfortable fuzziness, a baby wrapped in blankets, if you will.
Love and McGowan realise that laughing with a character is better than laughing at a character. It’s hard for us to feel anything for a clown because their tears are merely make-up. We root for Pamela because we see her every emotion and thought on Gallagher’s face. She gives a naturalistic performance that brims with the experience of a life full of missed opportunities.
Perhaps because of this, the thing that really ingratiates you to Pamela is her laugh. It’s infectious and a little smokey. It’s her trump card when she’s dealt a bad hand, and we get the impression that sometimes Pamela’s raucous hahas are a cover for tears.
There’s plenty for Pamela to laugh and cry about right here in the present. Her relationship with her teenage daughter Allegra (Lola Petticrew) is strained of late. Allegra has beef big and small with her hard-partying mother. Allegra tut-tuts at Pamela for drinking too much, complains that she was given an unusual name and laments the lack of vegan options in the family fridge.
All of this comes at a hungover Pamela as a tidal wave of grievances. It’s also before either party discovers Pamela’s “geriatric” pregnancy. Petticrew is a good straight-woman to Pamela’s comedienne. She’s played so buttoned-up and proper that in many sequences the action plays out as if mother and daughter roles are reversed.
Some of the mother-daughter conflict in A Bump Along the Way is purely generational. There are things, mainly soy-based, that Pamela, despite her relative youth, doesn’t understand.
A second narrative thread sees Allegra struggle with the day-to-day trials of a teenager. She is teased by an obnoxious bully in her art class, pines for the affection of a dreamboat classmate, and tries her best to navigate the social complexities of secondary school. The dual narratives help to make Allegra come off as less of a scold.
Allegra’s difficulties at school feed back into how she sees and treats her mum. In many ways, Allegra is envious of Pamela’s apparent confidence and easy manner with those around her. Pamela works at a local bakery and has a gift with the customers. In one scene, Allegra sees Pamela laughing it up with some of her classmates and skulks off. Later, jealousy causes a bust-up at home that leaves Pamela scratching her head as to what she’s done wrong.
Scenes like these are humorous, but there’s also a palpable heartache in the moments that follow. Allegra can be cruel, as only a teenager can be – her words are impulsive and deeply hurtful to Pamela. The kind of things you instantly regret saying, things you say in the moment and agonise over in quiet moments for years to come: in the shower, on a supermarket queue, or while waiting for a traffic light to change.
Petticrew works through this regret in her performance. There’s regret because more than anything else she loves her mother and wants the best for her.
The manner in which the mother-daughter relationship is handled in A Bump Along the Way illustrates this film’s greatest strength, an ever-present undercurrent of hopefulness. There are, at many points in the story, opportunities for things to take a disastrous turn for Pamela and Allegra.
Love and McGowan toy with a number of unhappy endings for the film, but they’re not simple “gotchas” or cheap tricks. Rather, any of these potential downer plot lines support the idea that with the right attitude and a bit of self-belief, things will be alright.
We get this feeling from Gallagher’s laughter, from Pamela’s numerous reconciliations with Allegra. We see this aspect of the film through the framing of grey skies and gloomy exteriors with pastel coloured window panes, and through Pamela’s house, the site of much heartache, but still full to the brim with amusing little trinkets and keepsakes. In A Bump Along the Way there’s a silver lining to every cloud and a rainbow after every storm.
Take, for example, one of the earliest bits of misdirection: the characterisation of Pamela as an impulsive party animal. This side of Pamela’s character is true for all of 10 minutes. When we jump-cut to her pouring bottles of wine down the sink after discovering she’s pregnant, that should be indication enough that despite who she thinks she is, what Allegra or the village think of her, or indeed, what we as an audience think, this baby’s in capable hands.
The fact that this is never really a doubt for the filmmakers is a refreshing approach to the Unexpected Pregnancy genre, which so often deals in manbabies and fembabies putting down the bong and reluctantly picking up the baby basket. There is no such hesitation with Pamela – it’s not her first rodeo after all.
As the film progresses we see Pamela’s pregnancy as a catalyst for change within her life. For possibly the first time in her life, she is in complete control. Rather than shame-inducing, Pamela’s pregnancy is liberating. She can finally opt for the happiness that has eluded her.
We’re spared the swelling of strings when in a moment of triumphant self-realisation Pamela declares that’s she’s “tired of being a mug”, but perhaps we shouldn’t be. A Bump Along the Way is a feel-good movie because it allows us to spend time with characters that we want to feel good for.
There isn’t movie magic here. Instead, we’re seeing the everyday magic that happens when someone dares to hope for more, to dream a better life for themselves, and somehow, make it happen. Simply, it’s a great pleasure.