Shot on a shoestring budget in Spokane, Washington, “Norman” is a film which overcomes some of the traditional trappings of an independent drama, dusts itself off and begins to matter, until devolving into an unrealistic and hackneyed conclusion. Never in love with the film, I stayed with it and began to warm to the main characters a bit, until tried-and-true independent drama trapdoors began springing up everywhere. “Norman” does however retain just enough of an interesting story that if the mood strikes, the blanket is out, the pajamas are on, and coffee or cocoa are in hand, this might fill a nice void during a fall morning or afternoon.
Directed by Jonathan Segal and featuring a debut screenplay by Talton Wingate, Norman (Dan Byrd) is an introverted and shy high school senior. He sparks no real interest from girls and is fortunate to have a friend or two. Looking a little deeper however offers insight into why Norman is so withdrawn and mired in a malaise about the world around him.
Recently, Norman lost his mother in a sudden and abrupt car accident and Norman is left to tend to his irascible and cancer-stricken father, Doug (Richard Jenkins). A doctor himself, Doug’s cancer is aggressive and advanced and he refuses to accept anymore chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Essentially, Doug isolates himself at home in self-imposed hospice and Norman is forced to assist and endure Doug’s temperament, his declining health, and the preparations necessary for when Doug does ultimately die. Clearly, Norman has a lot on his mind.
When the tipping point has almost been reached for Norman, he offers a clever witticism and impresses his English teacher (Adam Goldberg). A series of events lead Norman into auditioning for entry into the high school Drama Club and soon, he finds himself taken with, and liked by, the charming and attractive Emily (Emily VanCamp). The possibility of having a girlfriend seemingly could not come at a more apt and appropriate time.
Sadly, Talton Wingate’s screenplay feels a bit rehashed from other and better films. Norman, in a moment of idiocy that only high school movie kids ever stumble into, secretly shares with his best friend James (Billy Lush) that he is suffering from cancer and he has just a few short months left. Immediately ashamed in his own skin, Norman lets the lie manifest itself around school and he inevitably warms to the attention and new status he has in school. He shaves his head, wears extra clothing, and buys in to his own charade. Naturally so does Emily, and in the most contrived way possible, Norman starts to wonder if his girlfriend likes him for him or because he has only a few short months allegedly left to live.
Barely holding this afloat is Dan Byrd, who you likely will recognize from TV’s “Cougar Town” and/or as Emma Stone’s closeted gay high school friend in 2010’s “Easy A”. Byrd has a cherubic and expressive face and surprises at times with how genuine and believable he can be in drumming up emotions. Emily VanCamp plays a suitable love interest in the film and shares some nice moments with Byrd. Richard Jenkins, always watchable in basically everything he ever appears in, chews some scenery and is sold short by a screenplay that fails to respect Doug effectively enough to make us truly care about his situation.
Certainly not uncommon for a small, low-budget, dialogue-heavy little movie, “Norman” moves at a glacial place for the first half, meticulously laying down foundational scenes one after the other. I grew tired watching “Norman” take its time because there seemed to be an untapped energy that director Jonathan Segal needed to bringout of Talton Wiongate’s script. Stabs of humor and lightheartedness sneak in, but there are simply not enough winning moments to really make this as engaging a film as it should be.
However, I cannot necessarily dismiss the film outright because once the relationship is built between Norman and Emily, the film starts to lift off the ground. More than anything it becomes clear that there is a good movie encased in a muddled and frustrating one called “Norman”. Unfortunately, that good movie rarely shines through the cloudstorm of contrived situations and a heavy-handed, only-happens-in-the-movies conclusion that undoes much of the goodwill the film starts to generate in its latter half.