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'Norman' review: Dan Byrd hits right notes as troubled teen

Director Jonathan Segal and writer Talton Wingate poignantly capture a teen's struggles as Dan Byrd, Richard Jenkins and Emily VanCamp add genuine heart to their characters.

October 21, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

"Norman" is one of those intimate indies that makes an excellent case for micro-economics in filmmaking, with director Jonathan Segal wringing every bit of emotional purity and ironic humor that he can out of this teen coming-of-age in a life surrounded by death story.

Dan Byrd, whose nice turn in "Easy A" last year began pushing him outside his "Cougar Town" comedy series comfort zone, stars as Norman, a complex kid with a lot of extra baggage piled on top of the normal high school angst.

Screenwriter Talton Wingate has given Norman a Job-like test. He's an underweight intellectual, so an automatic outsider in the high school hierarchy. His mom was killed not long ago in a car crash, one of those fateful accidents that makes him question everything even more. His dad (Richard Jenkins) is rapidly wasting away from stomach cancer. Norman's keeping the growing pile of problems to himself — who wants to be the kid whose mother died and whose father is dying? — so not surprisingly suicide is starting to have some appeal.

All of that trouble results in a life-changing lie when in a moment of frustration, Norman tells his best friend James (Billy Lush) that he has cancer. Stomach cancer specifically — after all, that's what he knows. In a flash he's found the key to, if not being popular exactly, at least being tolerated by all the school cliques, and the filmmakers have found a way to lighten up the story.

The silver lining to the building storm clouds in Norman's life is new classmate Emily (Emily VanCamp), a bit of blond sunshine. It comes as a complete shock to Norman that a girl, especially one as cute and smart as Emily, likes him. It also complicates his whole dying ruse, since he has suddenly found something worth living for. Whether the lie will be his saving grace or his undoing is what "Norman" spends most of its time trying to answer.

The themes are big ones for any film, large or small, to tackle. But the dialogue is smart, and Segal proves adept at keeping the film from slipping into the maudlin muck that, given all the various death scenarios, was certainly possible. For first-time screenwriter Wingate and Segal, in only his second feature (2004's "The Last Run), it's impressive work — they never overplay the pity card, opting for insight into the complexities of growing up instead.

The humor is sly and not overplayed either. Typical is the English class with Mr. Angelo (Adam Goldberg) trying to prod his bored students into parsing the difference between satire and irony, which is what the filmmakers are up to as well.

Byrd does an excellent job of keeping Norman's pain right underneath the surface as he tries to physically transform himself into the short-term cancer patient his father really is. VanCamp ("Revenge," "Brothers & Sisters") knows how to do appealing teen well, making the growing attraction between Norman and Emily feel authentic. Meanwhile, Jenkins is his usual excellent self, playing a dad both embracing death — it will end the pain and reunite him with his wife — and denying help.

It's all too much to ask of a teenager who doesn't even know how to drive, yet watching Norman learn how to manage a stick shift and life is definitely worth it.

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