Norman: Film Review

Coming-of-age tales have been done and done again, but Jonathan Segal's "Norman" delivers a bracing twist on the genre.

Starring Dan Byrd and Emily VanCamp, director Jonathan Segal's "Norman" is an unusual variation on the teenage indie movie.

MONTREAL -- Coming-of-age tales have been done and done again, but Jonathan Segal's Norman delivers a bracing twist on the genre: The alienated adolescent of the title, a goodhearted smart aleck of a nerd, fakes having cancer and is left to reconcile his rising social stock with a guilty conscience. The film built around Norman's brazen bit of acting out is uneven -- a strong, fresh first half is followed by a dismayingly earnest second. But there's enough that is winning and sharp to hold you until the end, even as you're disappointed by the direction the film takes.

As an unusual variation on the teenage indie, Norman would make a fitting entry for smaller festivals. Despite its bleak subject matter, the film's eccentric but essentially likable main character and the impressive lead performance by Dan Byrd could make it a sleeper in a limited North American release.

The first part of the movie acquaints us with Norman, who initially seems like a typical outcast: a hyper-self-aware high school senior who keeps the world at bay through sarcasm and self-deprecation. But as written by Talton Wingate and played by Byrd, he's more original than that: a prickly, insecure adolescent whose constant stream of quips is at odds with his yearning gaze and who looks ready to melt at the slightest kindness.

We soon learn that Norman has had a tough life: His mother was killed in a car accident, and his father (Richard Jenkins) is dying of stomach cancer. One of the more refreshing things about Norman is that we understand precisely why the teenage protagonist is so beleaguered and caustic. It's the rare film that convincingly links a young person's destructive behavior to the particular circumstances of his life, securing sympathy for him even as he does bad things.

Although Norman considers himself a loner, there are a few other important people in his orbit: his good-looking best friend, James (Billy Lush), whose homosexuality is portrayed with appealing matter-of-factness; an English teacher (nicely played by Adam Goldberg) who sees potential in Norman and tries to pull it out of him; and Emily (Emily VanCamp), the new girl at school who senses a fellow outsider in Norman and reaches out to him with surprising tenderness.

These are standard teen-movie figures -- VanCamp's sweet-natured beauty seems especially too good to be true -- but they are written and played with sincerity and a delicate touch.

Wingate crafts dialogue between young people -- and between young people and adults -- that sounds heartfelt but not Nicholas Sparks sappy, witty without straining a la Juno. The relationship between Norman and his father is especially believable, full of affection and mutual need, with a dash of disappointment.

When Norman lies about having cancer, the moment resonates with genuine anguish. He is not just revolting against the uncommonly tough hand of cards he has been dealt, he is expressing a desperate need to be the one taken care of, rather than the caretaker; to be nurtured, rather than tested with hardship after hardship. For a little while, the film plays off an intriguing tension: We feel like we're watching a dying-young story, but the young person in question is not actually dying.

It's an interesting narrative trick -- the viewer's emotional reflexes are based partly on false premises -- but the film has a hard time sustaining it. The second half nearly collapses under the weight of our protagonist's lie, which spirals so out of control that soon the whole school is ready to embrace him as a hero, while he shaves his head and starts making home movies chronicling his rounds of chemo. Part of the problem is that it is never entirely convincing that someone who seems basically level-headed would maintain such a dramatic lie for as long as Norman does.

More bothersome still are turns the story takes to accommodate Norman's lie: the home video sequences and an assembly speech in which he finally fesses up play like bits from a disease-of-the-week TV movie or afterschool special. Segal, who displays a light touch in the first half of Norman, lets these melodramatic developments get the better of the film's tone in the second half. The result is a final act that is far more predictable than we might have hoped, with the usual doses of tears, reconciliation, catharsis, and acoustic music cueing our feelings.

The modest digital aesthetic of Norman feels appropriate, though Segal could have offset the nagging sense that his film is ultimately more conventional than it had to be by taking further visual risks. The story is overripe with heavy themes -- death, depression, falling in love for the first time -- and it's hard not to wish the director had relied less on narrative exposition and more on his images to convey the intensity of such material.

Still, Norman has some big things going for it, not least of which is the stupendous central performance, one of the most intelligent and deeply felt big-screen portrayals of a troubled teen in the last several years. The character lingers with you even after the film starts to fade from memory.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival
Production: North by Northwest Entertainment
Cast: Dan Byrd, Emily VanCamp, Richard Jenkins, Adam Goldberg, Billy Lush
Director: Jonathan Segal
Screenwriter: Talton Wingate
Producer: Rich Cowan, Dan Keston, Hawk Koch, Jonathan Segal
Director of photography: Darren Genet
Music: Andrew Bird
Costume designer: Lisa Caryl
Set decorator: Dan Beyer
Editor: Robert Hoffman
No rating, 97 minutes