Being a teenager is hard enough, but for Norman (Dan Byrd), the minefield of emotions he is forced to navigate is almost absurd in its proportion. Certainly not popular, but not a total exile either, Norman seems to exist in his own bubble at high school, one that keeps his pervading depression and suicidal thoughts as a close companion. But if this weren’t enough, Norman, still reeling from the tragic death of his mother in a car accident, is also bearing witness to his father (Richard Jenkins) wasting away in the final stage of stomach cancer, with this painful experience compounded by the worry that the bills around the house are starting to pile up. But with all of this comes a shining ray of light in Emily (Emily VanCamp), a classmate who shares Norman’s oddball sense of humor (and is the rare girl who loves Monty Python) but more importantly, shows a genuine interest in the outsider.
On paper, this sounds like a recipe for an indie disaster, an over spiced stew of emotional button pushing and manipulative plot elements, but it’s the understated script by Talton Wingate and the confident direction of Jonathan Segal that turns “Norman” into something much, much more. With relationships rooted in disarmingly real characters — who actually talk and act like teenagers, whose feelings are often confounded by hormones, and by situations years beyond their maturity level — combined with a sincere sympathy that is never used to dilute the hard realities Norman must face, the film is a well observed, tender and moving ode to adolescence and loss.
When we first meet Norman, he’s in English class, where he’s sharing a pleasant exchange of witty barbs with his teacher Mr. Angelo (Adam Goldberg). In defining “irony” for the class, Norman relates a recent incident at school where a motivational speaker came to talk to the students, but his own demeanor didn’t match the message. Mr. Angelo is impressed and presses Norman on his thoughts on the speaker’s optimistic outlook on life, to which he disagrees, stating, “Life isn’t rainy and then sunny, it’s happy, then it’s sad. It’s just nature, birth to death.” This is all in barely the first five minutes of the movie but it quickly establishes not only Norman as a whipsmart eighteen-year-old but also one suffering under some tremendous, internal pain. Yet, with his mother dead and his father dying, Norman takes great pains to avoid sympathy. His best friend James (Billy Lush) is in the dark about his father’s cancer, which leads to the trickiest moment of the entire film, and the entire conceit of the whole premise. After a heated argument with James, who accuses him of constantly flaking out of his commitments, and generally moping around the school under a dark cloud, an exasperated Norman tells him that he has cancer and three months to live.
We’ve seen this before in countless movies, where a lie by one character is the device around which the plot swirls until it is revealed in the third act, allowing for all the narrative threads to come neatly to a close. But again, the combination of Wingate’s script and Segal’s unfussy, steady hand makes it work. Because Norman is so well written, his lie is anchored in strongly established character traits. By saying it’s himself who has cancer allows him, in his own warped sense of logic, to keep the real situation of his father’s impending death from being known. Norman yearns to be liked for who he is, as any teenager does, and not defined by the circumstances in which he has found himself. Though he tries to get James to keep the news to himself, it quickly spreads like wildfire, but in an odd sense it’s liberating. When Norman does try to close Pandora’s Box it’s to no avail, almost as if people prefer him to be sick, and in a strange way it allows him to be exactly who he is without having to make any apologies for it. Of course, Emily believes he is sick as well, but as their relationship flourishes, the (fake) ticking clock on his life gives him a chance, when he’s with her, to forget about the real problems he faces at home, and just be a teenager in love. But the trick for all this to work depends on how that lie is eventually found out, what the aftermath of it is, and if there is any complaint about the film, it’s that while the ending works beautifully, it’s almost too rushed. We would have preferred ten or fifteen more minutes in the third act just to let it breathe, and while the movie does fall on the cliché of the major character making a declarative speech near the close of the film, the moment is a small one and Norman’s redemption — if you can call it that — is found elsewhere.
Watching “Norman,” we couldn’t help but be reminded of another movie with this year with a teenage character dealing with someone close to them battling cancer — namely, Gus Van Sant‘s “Restless.” Where that film hid and arguably belittled its subject with a twee soundtrack and hipster thrift store fashions (or, in the case of “50/50” under some mediocre faux Judd Apatow-esque dramedy), Jonathan Segal’s film confronts it head on. The pain is real in “Norman,” but so too is the heart. Buoyed by an eclectic, but not distracting, score from Andrew Bird, grounded by an excellently nuanced turn by Dan Byrd who is in pretty much every scene of the film (Hollywood, pay attention to this guy), “Norman” acknowledges the deep, irrevocable wounds of death, but with honesty, understanding and a sly sense of humor, that finds the path to hope. [B+]