This seems like a primer on how to do divorce badly. But it also gets at a broader theme: how truth and lies shape lives.
Life is messy for Abi (Rosamund Pike) and Doug (David Tennant). As they scramble to pack into the car for the long drive from London to the Scottish highlands, they must deal with the antics of their three precocious children. As What We Did On Our Holiday begins, four-year-old Jess (Harrient Turbull) shows a penchant for hiding car keys and holding her breath to the point of blacking out; Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) is obsessed with Vikings and horrific trivia, which he offers "for your information"; and oldest daughter Lottie (Emilia Jones) keeps lists as well as a close eye on the tension between her parents.
In the midst of a hostile separation, Abi and Doug probably need an eye kept on them. They fight incessantly, to the point that someone calls the police to check on a domestic disturbance. Each terse exchange between them, no matter how mundane the topic, brings exasperated, repetitive pleas from the children: "Don't start."
Despite the parents' repeated assurances that "We aren't starting," they always are. As the children observe their battles, the film shifts between adults and kids' perspectives. Though they aren't always able to hear clearly what their parents say, we see the fighting as they do, through rain-pelted windows when Abi and Doug step out of the car to go at each other or we hear muffled shouting from upstairs while the kids fix their own breakfast downstairs. Lottie especially is wounded, though all three appear resigned. We understand what they intuit, that this isn't the beginning of the end, but the end of the end.
On its surface, What We Did On Our Holiday seems a primer on how to do divorce badly. But it also gets at a broader theme: how truth and lies shape lives. Abi and Doug are determined not to share the news of their breakup with Doug's ailing father, Gordie (Billy Connolly), which leaves Lottie worried about keeping her story straight. She asks her parents for a list of lies she and her siblings are supposed to tell when they see him in Scotland. Doug explains that "not mentioning" is not the same as lying and further, when one's "intentions are good, it's okay to lie." The film makes clear that as the adults see blurred lines between truth and falsehood, the children deal in absolutes. Lottie, Jess, and Mickey are suspicious of their parents' rationale, and become fearful too: does this mean Abi and Doug lie to them?
They do, of course. But if we're inclined to disapprove of Abi and Doug's parenting, before we can get too judgy, most of us would have to admit that we do the same. The truth of a terminal prognosis is too frightening for a small child, right? Are we required to let anyone and everyone in on the truth of our private relationships, even if we are asked directly? Is controlling information the same as lying?
These questions lead to some comedy here, as the children offer unfiltered and brutally truthful commentary when it's in their power to do so. Mickey snaps the horns off a Viking helmet given to him by Doug's brother, Gavin (Ben Miller), because they are "historically inaccurate." Likewise, the kids take Gordie's tall tales as fact, however far-fetched (and more than a little horrifying), their reactions pushing the adults to deal with the realities of their relationships.
But as it delivers this message, the film offers a frustrating tidiness. Abi and Doug's chaos is contrasted by the relative peace and order of Gavin and his wife, Margaret (Amelia Bullmore). Here What We Did On Our Holiday -- its release in the US a function of Pike and Tennant's current popularity -- indulges in a tedious comparison between the slacker mom and the good mom.
Abi's children are occasionally unruly and she packs for the road trip by flinging an armload of loose toys into the car. Compare this to Margaret's well-behaved son and her Pinterest-perfect seating chart and party prep for Gordie's 75th birthday celebration. Both husbands are complicit in locking the women into these types: Abi is frustrated and overwhelmed, but defiant in the face of Doug's criticism of how she handles the kids. Margaret must appear the good mother to support the image Gavin has crafted. But it is Abi's family, however disordered, that is more honest and so, more admirable. It's also predictable, as the film finds a way to make the family's raucous holiday end happily.