You know the type. Every school has (at least) one—rumors always swirling about that depressed, angry loner whose family life is a total wreck. Will he commit suicide? Will he try to recreate Columbine? Or will he simply slide through high school, like he’s waiting out something deeply unimportant so he can move on to the adult world in which he’s been mired all along.
Norman Long (Dan Byrd) is that kid. His mother died in a car wreck, but the film implies that wasn’t exactly the start of his dour frame of mind. It was more like the straw that broke the sad camel’s back, leading to escalating behavior like real suicide attempts and lashing out at anyone who tries to get close to him. His physician father, Doug (Richard Jenkins), seems to be Norman’s closest friend, and together they harbor a dark secret: Doug has stomach cancer. One failed round of chemo, and Doug sees the writing on the wall. He has precious few months left, and he spends them on a couch, drinking to numb the pain and moaning because it doesn’t work.
This doesn’t sound like it’s setting the stage for a demented teen comedy, but that’s actually the core of Norman‘s story. Norman pushes away potential friends, antagonizes enemies, but ultimately he’s starved for attention from his peers. He’s been thrust into a world of adult problems and decisions that he doesn’t want to make, so he has no clue how to be a kid. At the urging of his default best friend (i.e., the only student who will talk to him), “Gay James” (Billy Lush), Norman unsuccessfully auditions for the “drama team” with a disturbing monologue about his actual suicidal thoughts. He also meets Emily (Emily VanCamp), a new student who seems to like Norman.
When James accuses Norman of being too unreliable to be put on a team, Norman blurts out that he has cancer—and finally, he gets the attention he’s so desperate for. He spends much of the first half of the movie claiming he doesn’t want anyone to know, but once the rumor gets out—thanks to James, who spreads it like wildfire—Norman’s more than willing to act the part. He observes Doug and mimics his pain and weakness. He both exhausts and starves himself to create that gaunt, skeletal appearance. In short, he puts a hell of a lot of effort into perpetuating an act that gets him attention he claims he doesn’t want.
And then there’s Emily. Their relationship complicates almost immediately because of the cancer rumor. Norman is livid, because he knows that one day earlier, Emily liked him for him. Now, he fears, she’ll just feel sorry for him, and she’ll hate him if and when he comes clean. Despite all the problems, he spends time with her, lets her think he has cancer and that it’s worsening. A sympathetic teacher (Adam Goldberg) suggests that Norman make a film documenting his struggles. The end result is a jarring, experimental paean to depression, loneliness, fear, and thanatophilia.
Norman is a sharp-toothed teen comedy that doesn’t shy away from making a mess or going to extremely dark, emotional places. It’s clearly sympathetic to Norman’s misguided actions (and every single action Norman makes during the film is misguided), but Talton Wingate’s screenplay doesn’t let him off the hook. At its core, though, it’s an extremely well-made coming-of-age story for cynical teens. The narrative structure is familiar, but the emotional complexity and bleak satire of high school politics make it something more.
Byrd first appeared on my radar screen as the central character in the brilliant but ill-fated CW sitcom Aliens in America. Aside from an appearance in Easy A, I haven’t seen much of him. His performance as Norman, which should be a career-maker if anyone in Hollywood pays attention to this film, demonstrates an ability to handle an extremely challenging role with impressive commitment. He proved his comedy chops in Aliens in America and as the only entertaining part of Easy A—here, he shows an aptitude for dramatic acting.
It goes beyond that, though. Norman is so idiosyncratic, so complicated, so contradictory, it’s astounding that Byrd can make the character work. It’s also a testament to Wingate and director Jonathan Segal (both first-timers) that the film doesn’t completely fall apart under the strain of its central character’s foibles. Weaknesses in any element of this film would have caused it to collapse.
Byrd’s not the only one doing stellar work here. Every actor in this film does exceptional, redefining work here. The possible exception is Jenkins, who is great, but he’s had such a long, storied career, it’s hard to say he’s revelatory here. VanCamp, Lush, and Goldberg all impressed me, more than they have in the past. I couldn’t say if it’s a situation where Segal managed to find the perfect ensemble, or if he just works exceptionally well with actors. I’ve seen them all before, and they’ve all been good. Unless they’re involved with fan clubs for the respective actors, anyone watching this film will feel like they’ve underestimated these performers in the past, no matter how good they’ve been.
I’m not usually the type to gush or rave, but Norman is tremendous, one of the best films I’ve seen this year (right now, it’s neck and neck with Lebanon). Those of you in Chicago have two more chances to see it.