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.