Friday, October 28, 2011

Normal Norman

Well, I had a choice. Either I could see the uninspiring sequel to a little-cared about James Bond knockoff starring a famous British comedian, or I could see an indie film about a troubled teenager that can seemingly only have one destination. With all due respect to Rowan Atkinson (I loved the Black Adder series, but don't push your luck) and Johnny English Reborn, I'll go with the one that stars Richard Jenkins every time, and that's how I came to see Norman this past week. I had only seen the trailer a few days earlier, and was intrigued enough by such a shockingly honest take on disaffected youths that I made plans to see it as immediately as I could, before the wide release of four major motion pictures this weekend could prevent me from doing so. I knew of the film's theme - young disturbed man has a glimpse of hope while wallowing in depression - but the actual plot of the story was not yet known to me, and I was sure that my opinion of Norman would come directly from whatever choice of story director Jonathan Segal would decide to tell.

Teenager at school = social outcast
High school senior Norman Long (Dan Byrd) is going through a rough time. Okay, that's putting it lightly. It was hard enough losing his mother to a car wreck a few years back, an event from which he has never fully recovered. Now it is his father he is poised to lose, as patriarch Doug (Jenkins) suffers from stomach cancer that threatens to take him away at any moment. Unable to cope with this, Norman has withdrawn from just about everyone and has developed suicidal tendencies in response to the doom around him. Only the appearance of new student Emily (Emily VanCamp) seems to affect his life for the positive, as she truly appears to take a liking to him, and he to her in turn. With her help he can step away from the edge of Oblivion and start to take control of his life, but a lie of his own device threatens to undue all the good that has come of late, and Norman once again feels powerless in the face of overwhelming guilt.

Jeez, why did girls this cute never talk to ME in high school?
First and foremost, it's refreshing to see such topics as parental loss, first loves, depression and suicide taken as serious as they are, and told as such. Each is a major factor in the development of the Norman's script and characters, especially in the person of the film's namesake.Norman is no simply-depicted suicidal teen. Sure, he's got so much angst that it's practically leaking from his ears; with this much emotional trauma in one so young, who wouldn't? He also puts up a wall of self-deprecating humor, sarcasm and self-destructivism between himself and even those who would seek to help him, as he can't bring himself to face the hell waiting for him in the future. Hollywood doesn't usually depict its heroes this way. Sure, your average teenage sidekick might have more issues than David Pelzer could shake a stick at, but even they are never as depressed, mentally agitated and darkly cynical as Norman Long. And yet he has his good parts, brought out especially by the love he has for his father and his affection for Emily,. who is so much his perfect match it's scary (she quotes Monty Python at will; I wish I knew a girl who could do that). These qualities make Norman a young man you want to root for, despite his errors.

"The Talk" is always harder when you can't escape it
On the flip side of the coin, Norman's script and direction leave a lot to be desired. The film's big lie is the major problem: it's a cliched attempt at forcing conflict into a situation where one was not needed. Is the lie stupid? Yes. Are the people who have been lied to stupid for having believed it? Absolutely. But what makes the entire thing worse is that as bad as the lie is, Norman never tells Emily the truth until he absolutely has to, a grave sign of what's to come for anyone who has been in a moderately successful relationship. Is Norman stupid and inexperienced? Yes. Can this be expected? Yes, but the lie (or omission of truth, as it were) is such a huge mistake on his part that you can't help but be frustrated by his inability to come clean about the situation. While that's the worst part of Norman, the rest of the story is sadly slow and ponderous, only picking up interest when the lead is interacting with Emily or dear old dad. Too often you'll be checking your watch to see how much time has passed, a shame considering the film clocks in at a mere 97 minutes.

The best actor nobody ever talks about
A retinue of great actors at least stand front and center to do what they can with the minimal material laid in front of them. Byrd, who played a homosexual loner in 2010's feel-good teen drama Easy A, already has experience playing characters like Norman, which helps make his performance here authentic and beautiful. While Norman might at times be frustrating, it is the power of Byrd's work that makes us wish for better from his character, and hope that he can do better in the future. Jenkins is... well, he's Richard freaking Jenkins! Anyone who has seen him in the HBO series Six Feet Under or his Academy Award-nominated starring role in 2008's The Visitor already knows what a wonderful actor he is. Every time he appears in any role, I can't help but be excited about what I'm going to see, and Jenkins remains one of the few performers who never lets me down. VanCamp also impresses me with a surprising mix of maturity and nymph-like innocence that makes her not only a compelling love interest, but also a wonderful character in general. There is one scene in which she auditions for a drama club which is less than authentic (from one who was once a stage player, when you are on stage, you must "E-NUN-ci-ATE"), but that is a small gaffe in an otherwise strong performance. Secondary characters like Adam Goldberg as a frustrated high school teacher and Billy Lush as Norman's gay best friend are also deeper than they first appear on the surface, though the impact of both on the story as a whole is lost in it's muddling.

Is that a My Little Pony? What the hell?
I wish I could recommend Norman to you all, but sadly between the film's perpetually depressed state, dark themes, cliched storytelling and long stretches of boredom, the excellent acting and character development are all but brushed to the wayside. If a better story had been borne from this amateur attempt, I would raise it myself over the heads of truly fine filmmaking such as  50/50 and the like. However Norman instead appears destined to emulate the disaffected school students it honors by sulking off by itself and going generally unnoticed. I can't help but wish things had gone differently - especially with this cast - but one can only hope that these performers take what they learned on the set and become better for it in their future projects, which will hopefully be more memorable than this, the indie film equivalent of that silent kid in the corner.

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