“Am I alive?” is the appropriately existential opening line of Burn Burn Burn, a British tragicomedy which isn’t afraid to make light of the darker sides of life. Director Chanya Button’s daring first feature sets about tackling the hefty issue of 29 year old Dan’s (Jack Farthing) premature death from pancreatic cancer.
Life and soul of the party, Dan, leaves his two besties Alex (Chloe Pirrie) and Seph (Laura Carmichael) with the responsibility of scattering his ashes in four significant locations across the UK. While the pair are initially sceptical, a rather convenient series of events leads them to embark upon the proposed road trip.
Unfortunately the film treads the oh-so-familiar path of self-discovery via chaotic road trip, too often relying on narrative contrivances and coincidences to propel the journey forward. Several of the sub-plots fall flat, including a dramatically and comically inert encounter with a cult figurehead who spouts empty philosophical musings. As well as an overly melodramatic extended sequence involving Diana (Alison Steadman), a fragile elderly women searching for her son. Diana’s inclusion seems only purposeful in prompting Alex to confront her own mummy issues.
What elevates this rather pre-determined material is two committed, versatile performances from Pirrie and Carmichael. The pair deftly handle the potentially jarring shifts in tone, delivering on both their comedic and dramatic cues. Alex remains the most intriguing and layered of the two, the hints at her damaged past providing a refreshing counter-point to Seph’s well-worn romantic troubles with boyfriend James (Joe Dempsie).
The recorded clips of Dan which accompany each leg of the trip could easily feel disruptive but the transition is alarmingly natural thanks to Farthing’s engaging, quirky and touching display. Even from beyond the grave he’s in fact the film’s main antagonist, his brutal honesty and scathing remarks reveal uncomfortable truths about his best friends and forces them (as well as us) to confront our innate mortality. Also, special mention goes out to Alice Lowe who features in a scene-stealing cameo as Davina, a stringent and hilarious costumed tour guide of Glastonbury Abbey.
These strong performances are buoyed by the intelligent dialogue of Charlie Covell’s script which is full of witty one-liners and perceptive observations. Amongst the craziness and humour of the road trip there’s some poignant reflections on the shortness of life, the pointlessness of fleeting arguments and the tragedy of feeling like you’ve not made the most of every second you’re alive. These themes are heightened by the film’s backdrop of the British countryside which adeptly captures the strange beauty and melancholy of the land. Though it follows a familiar path, Burn Burn Burn’s strong performances and razor-sharp script make it worth the ride.