As a young boy, Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) is deprived decent meals because his loving but sickly mother (Victoria Hamilton) doesn't have a clue about how to cook. She puts cans of food in the pans to heat them and when Nigel asks for a birthday cake, she makes a mess of the whole kitchen. So most of the time, the family eats toast — the bread of life for them. When Nigel's mother dies, he and his father (Ken Stott) live a simplified life.
All that changes when Joan Porter (Helena Bonham Carter) is hired as a cleaning lady. Nigel immediately dislikes her. Part of it is a class prejudice: his father works as a manager at a factory whereas Joan is a working-class woman. Secondly, it is a sexual thing: she wears short dresses and then begins dating his father who, just the opposite of his son, is turned on by her eroticism. They eventually get married.
At the age of 16 Nigel (Freddie Highmore) decides to go with his natural love of food and cooking. At school, he takes home economics and soon finds himself the target of criticism from girls in the course, Nigel has accepted his gay sexuality so it doesn't matter what they think. At home, his stepmother has gone to war with him in a cook-off: they both come up with delicious dishes for Nigel's father. The ultimate competition comes down to who can make the best lemon meringue pie. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the family gains weight and has trouble with his heart.
Toast is directed by S. J. Clarkson from screenplay by Lee Hall based on the memoir by British food writer Nigel Slater. This is a character-driven drama about one boy's coming of age in a home where he can't abide his stepmother and is always trying to prove himself to his father. Joan is not an evil person even though Nigel finds her very disagreeable. It's a pity that she doesn't use her skills in the kitchen as a means of bringing them closer together. Instead their competition only intensifies their dislike of each other.
Although many youth who have experienced great strife with family members choose to walk away, it is wiser to try reconciliation and forgiveness early in life. Think of all the middle-aged walking wounded you know who have never gotten over what happened in their birth families. The closing scene in the film may seem to be a sweet revenge for Nigel but we wonder if it is just the start of an enduring sense of loss and regret over what might have been.