[13 October 2010]
It’s not easy making what should be a depressing film enjoyable. Which isn’t saying that Norman is the next feel-good-hit-of-the-season. But considering its subject—an unpopular teenager whose family is falling apart tells his peers he’s dying of cancer—Norman is an engrossing tale.
Norman is, through and through, an actors’ picture. Director Jonathan Segal let his cast breathe, and they carried the film through a few potentially lethal cliché narrative forces. There’s the not too popular kid at the forefront of the story (Dan Byrd); the suburban plight narrative; the guy-gets-the-girl rom-com.
Talton Wingate’s screenplay may veer a little too close to such well-worn territory. Fortunately, the cast pulls it all together to help make every inch of film a visceral, emotional viewing.
A large part of Norman‘s emotional center comes from Richard Jenkins, who plays Norman’s father, Doug Long: Jenkins brings an immeasurable amount of emotional gravitas to the movie, deftly performing a difficult role as a stubborn doctor refusing treatment for his debilitating stomach cancer.
As Norman’s sole guardian—Norman’s mother died in a car accident—Doug is both Norman’s emotional rock and a major cause of inner turmoil for the young man. Jenkins absolutely nails the role, and his performance packs a devastating emotional wallop every moment he’s onscreen: Jenkins deserves every award that can be thrown his way.
In the title role, Dan Byrd is slightly less versatile. The up-and-coming actor plays a slightly darker version of a role he’s played fairly often: the unpopular, kind of geeky teenager. Here’s hoping his work in Norman will help Byrd break out of that role: known best for his comedic work (Easy A, Cougar Town), Norman sees Byrd juggling weighty issues most teenagers never have to think about. Sure, he does it with a dark sense of humor, but Norman’s decisions are not quite as sharp as his tongue.
When Norman’s peers catch wind of a lie he told his best friend—that he has terminal stomach cancer and will die in three months—Norman gives into the lie rather than confess the harsher reality of his father’s impending death. Norman isn’t the first film in recent years to grapple with how a dramatic lie can affect a community. Nor is it the best in recent memory—that goes to Bobcat Goldthwait’s sorely under-appreciated 2009 movie, World’s Greatest Dad. But Norman discusses confronting mortality in a way that’s far more affecting than most films this year.