‘Norman’ Tests the Limits of Sympathy

Norman opens in a high school classroom where an English teacher (Adam Goldberg) leads a lesson about irony. It’s a suitable setting for where we meet the title character, a teenage anti-hero who struggles with his emotions while working — and sadly, failing — to earn our sympathy.

Norman Long (Dan Byrd) is in his last year of high school. He’s still understandably reeling in the aftermath of his mother’s death in a car crash two years earlier, and now his father, Doug (Richard Jenkins), is in the throes of terminal cancer. While Norman struggles with challenges beyond his years, he’s still dealing with all the trappings of kids his age: school assignments, friendships, crushes, after-school activities.

When things get to be too much for young Norman to handle, he wriggles his way out of a tight spot by conjuring a huge lie — one that elevates him to heroic status, stirs the sympathy and respect of his classmates and teachers, helps win a girl’s heart, and entangles Norman in a web of untruths so dense and so complex as to appear inescapable. And it’s just too much.

There are anti-heroes we root for. Robin Hood, for example, or Bruce Willis’s John McClane in Die Hard are flawed characters who stretch the limits of ethics and the law but ultimately succumb to their innate desires to serve a greater good.

There are anti-heroes we laugh at. In the BBC series The Worst Week of My Life, Ben Miller plays Howard Steele, a hapless outsider who just wants to do what’s best and be perceived as a good man. But good intentions poorly executed coupled with a hearty dose of bad luck create a spiralling array of ill effects that cause us to clutch our sides in simultaneous embarrassment and hilarity at sorry Howard.

But Norman Long is neither type of anti-hero. He seems to possess a pure heart, but the massive lie that drives so much of the story — despite winning over his teachers and fellow students — elicits neither sympathy nor support from the audience given that he is the instigator of his own added anguish. The cringes come as a result of Norman’s inability to expose the truth, but this underlying flaw feels unmotivated based on what else we know about him. Propagating a tissue of lies just doesn’t feel like something Norman would do — or at least do for as long as he does it. And the longer it goes on, the more uncomfortable it gets.

Augmenting this discomfort is the fact Norman attends one of those high schools that seem to exist only in films or on television — a school where the kids appear precociously mature and grounded. Despite this, none of Norman’s fellow pupils sense his cries for help, including Norman’s self-confessed romantic vision of suicide at a school Drama Club audition, or gather information about his father’s grave illness.

As the film wears on, Norman starts to feel a bit like Macbeth with his misguided ambition. We’re not laughing at Norman, we’re not cheering for him; we just want him to get called out for lying already so he can get his life together again.

There are aspects of Norman that do work well. Dan Byrd, in the title role, exudes nerdly charm reminiscent of Topher Grace or early Robert Downey Jr. Richard Jenkins turns in an emotionally wrenching performance as a father not wanting to abandon his son while the medical doctor in him realistically faces the odds of abdominal cancer. Emily VanCamp (ABC’s Revenge) gives a tender performance as Emily, the new girl at school who sees a kindred spirit in Norman. Billy Lush shines as Norman’s supportive best friend, James. Most notable is Adam Goldberg’s praiseworthy performance as a teacher who remains supportive and encouraging despite his underlying fatigue at the state of education.

The film also features music by Andrew Bird, its mournful whistling and violin suiting the mood rather neatly. The film’s shooting location of Spokane, Wash., allows director Jonathan Segal to set dialogue against stunning natural backdrops, suggesting forces well beyond Norman’s control.

Norman is an ambitious film for its themes and its approach to them. Ultimately, however, the film 50/50 deals much more honestly and thoughtfully with the spectre of cancer; the 1995 film Angus juxtaposes the teenage struggle for identity against bereavement and loss with a firmer grip on what it means to be a teenager. And the resolutions to 50/50 and Angus feel much more satisfying and motivated than the conclusion to Norman.

Given its ambition, its cast, its soundtrack and its setting, I really, really wanted to like Norman. But I can’t say that I did. That would be lying.

RATING 3 / 10