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Nowhere Special movie review: a father’s final bittersweet task

MaryAnn’s quick take: Beautiful and heartbreaking. A beguiling portrait of love, grief, and the pragmatism that unites them, built up via tender moments of the most ordinary sort. James Norton’s performance is revelatory.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh, beautiful film! Oh, heartbreaking film! And all the more so, on both counts, for how restrained, how spare, how understated it is. The potential for treacly mawkishness in Nowhere Special was enormous, but there’s not a hint of it to be found. Instead, rock-solid, genuine emotion slowly bubbles up to become, by the perfect ending, inescapable and overwhelming. I was an absolute blubbering mess for quite a while after the credits rolled, in the best way that a film can move you thus: by truly earning the power by which it immerses you in human experience.

Nowhere Special is a beguiling portrait of the love between single father John (James Norton: Little Women, Flatliners) and his four-year-old son, Michael (adorable newcomer Daniel Lamont), one built up via tender moments of the most ordinary sort. Writer-director Uberto Pasolini’s sensitive eye limns a story at bedtime or a trip to the grocery store as expressions of not merely togetherness and connection, but of life itself, of everything that is worth living for. A small boy throwing a tantrum over his pajama options, and his father’s reaction to this, is one of the most wonderful scenes I’ve seen on film in ages, for how it encapsulates the gentle weirdness and the humor of finding yourself a human being alive on this planet, and of helping a newly arrived person navigate it all.

Nowhere Special Daniel Lamont James Norton
Celebrating Daddy’s 34th birthday. He will not have a 35th.

But John faces an extraordinary challenge in this regard, the wretchedness of which Pasolini and Norton approach with infinite delicacy. For not a drop of information is revealed here, not a word is uttered, before it is absolutely required, and then we still get only the bare minimum we need to understand what is happening. It’s as if the movie itself is mirroring John’s own muted shock: He is dying, suffering from an unspecified terminal illness, and with no family to fall back on, he is working with social services in their Northern Ireland city to find the right adoptive family for Michael to join when John dies. Which will be soon.

Michael — who is very much a realistic little boy, nowhere near a cutesy, overly coached movie kid — is a bit bewildered by all these afternoon teas and country walks with their “new friends.” Slowly, we come to see that John is bewildered as well. For John, this pragmatic task, pouring all his focus onto his son, is a way for him to avoid coming to terms with his impending death. It’s when he begins to do that that I finally succumbed to the pathos of it all. Norton’s performance is a revelation: he speaks volumes while saying nothing with the smallest flicker of expression crossing his face. It is impossible to escape being drawn into John’s pain and, ultimately, the joy that surprises even him. He reduced me to an utter wreck… but also opened my eyes to the world around me in a way that I have not experienced in a long while.

Nowhere Special Daniel Lamont James Norton
Every hug has to count now…

That’s a lot to put on a bittersweet little movie, but Nowhere Special is more than up to it. I am not a parent — I imagine parents will be hit even harder than I was — but this is a movie that is going to linger with me, haunt me in the most humane way, for a long time.

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