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Monday, May 6, 2013

Norman DVD Review



Norman is a truly wonderful film about a teenager who is suffering through a horrible time and meets a girl whose friendship could really help him. There are moments in this film that had me laughing out loud, and other moments that wrecked me. And it had me completely engaged throughout.

Norman opens with an interesting image. Norman (Dan Byrd) puts a pencil in an empty locker, breathes deeply, and then takes it out again. Then in class, Norman’s teacher, Mr. Angelo (Adam Goldberg, in an excellent performance), is discussing irony. A student offers a comment, and when she is asked to expand on that, she says, “I don’t know.” Mr. Angelo responds, “‘I don’t know’ doesn’t really support your point. Can anybody help Helen out before I fail her and kill myself?” That, for me, provides the first laugh-out-loud moment, especially due to Adam Goldberg's wonderfully dry delivery.

Norman then expresses a somewhat bleak view and so the teacher nominates him to be one of the official senior speakers at an assembly, something Norman is not all that thrilled about.

At 3:36 p.m., Norman goes into the gym and asks the jocks if he can play with them. They deny him his request, and soon we are thrust into Norman’s home life. His father (played the incredibly talented and always-interesting Richard Jenkins) is sick with cancer. His mother has died in a car crash (Norman has a photo of the crash site over his desk, and the time stamp on it is 3:36 p.m.). So it’s left to Norman to keep things together. He seems to be doing all he can, but their phone is about to be shut off. And he’s held off learning how to drive, though he’s eighteen.

All of this is actually the set-up, and works really well to establish Norman’s life and his character. We are given just enough that we feel total empathy for him. And that’s when he meets Emily (Emily VanCamp), a beautiful and outgoing new student at the school. That day auditions are held for Drama Team, a club run by James, Norman’s only friend (and also his ride to and from school). It’s 3:36 p.m., and Norman goes to audition. So does Emily.  Norman’s audition provides another of this film’s many excellent moments. He tells a story about a dream of killing himself on stage and talks about how he had contemplated suicide. It’s powerful, because at this moment we’re not quite sure if it’s the truth, or an exaggerated take on the truth, or what. We sense, of course, that something very real is behind this monologue, but just to what extent we don’t know. The other students seem both horrified and dismissive.

When Emily approaches him later, she – out of nowhere – asks Norman if he’s ever seen Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. Oddly, this is the second movie I’ve seen make reference to that particular skit (Sliding Doors is the other one). (Later Norman and Emily do a bit of the “Spam” sketch.)

The scene where Norman’s father tries to talk to him about his will is incredible, especially coming as it does before Norman has left for school. This, understandably, puts Norman in a screwed up place, so when James berates him for being late, Norman, at the point of breaking, responds instead with a lie. That he is dying of cancer. It’s an amazing scene, because it’s then that we learn that he hasn’t told anybody about his father’s condition, that he really is alone in this.

Of course, soon the rumor is all over the school that he is dying of cancer, and everyone begins paying attention to him. Interestingly, when he is truthful (like when he tells Mr. Angelo that he doesn’t have cancer), it’s dismissed as a non-truth. But mostly he’s worried that this has queered his relationship with Emily, the one thing that might have been good on its own.

Norman sticks with the lie, perhaps because he finds it’s easier to deal with his own impending death than with his father’s. Because he can own it in a way, he can control it.

This film boasts excellent performances all round. Dan Byrd is really nothing short of perfect as Norman. And Emily VanCamp turns in a nuanced and completely believable performance as well. Every moment in this film feels honest and true, and that is due in large part to the talent of the cast.

Another excellent element is the film’s score, provided by Andrew Bird. The songs and compositions really help with the mood of the piece in a wonderful way. It’s a great score that’s never overwhelming.

Special Features

This DVD has quite a few special features, including Norman: Behind The Scenes, a twelve-minute making-of that features interviews with director Jonathan Segel and actors Dan Byrd, Emily VanCamp and Richard Jenkins. Jonathan Segel talks about the cast and about the head-shaving scene (and we’re treated to some behind-the-scenes footage of that). There is also a feature specifically on the music of the film, with an interview with Jonathan Segel, in which he says that Andrew Bird had never scored a movie before. There is some footage from the recording studio.

There are also six deleted scenes. I basically think all the right choices were made in deleting these scenes, at least the first four. The film is better without them. The last two, however, possibly could have stayed. The first of those two is Norman’s reenactment of his getting onto the drama team. (In the film, he says he’s about to do the reenactment, but we don’t actually see it.) And the second is a scene with Norman and his father, in which Norman is going through the bills and reads a letter from his teacher. Norman asks his father to come over to him and hug him (which better explains a later scene in the hospital). In the film, this scene would have come just before he told his father that he has a girlfriend.

The special features also include the film’s trailer, two promotional videos, a blooper reel and a photo gallery. The photo gallery plays through, without the viewer having to hit the arrow key, and is approximately ten minutes long.

Norman is scheduled to be released on May 7, 2013.

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