Movie review: Nowhere Special #sydfilmfest

(image courtesy IMP awards)

Imagine if you will that you are a devoted dad in Northern Ireland named John (James Norton) who has devoted the four years of his son Michael’s (Daniel Lamont) life to being the best dad possible, investing your time between window cleaning gigs (you run your own business) reading to him, taking him to the park and buying him ice creams and making his life as safe and loving as it can be.

It’s not an easy existence in some ways but it is a wholly encased and safe one where Michael, who can be as naughty or adorable as any boy his age but who is, for the most part, quiet, thoughtful and sweet, knows he is loved and knows he belongs.

His mother is long gone, having returned to her home country of Russia not long after his birth, leaving no forwarding address in her wake, so its just Michael and his dad and a strong sense that this happy twosome will be just fine, life’s challenges notwithstanding, because they have each other.

Nowhere Special looks for all the world, in its first quietly understated scenes at least, to be the supreme evocation of perfect family life but the truth is that John is dying, and with the clock dying, the race is on to find his son a new family with the help of local social services workers like Shona (Eileen O’Higgins).

As each sensitively-realised scene follows another, the film, written and directed by Uberto Pasolini, slowly brings into a world that looks inviolable and forever but which is doomed in ways that will make your heart break many time over as the story progresses.

For a movie that could very easily have gone down some sort of overwrought, mawkish road, milking the deep abiding sadness of John’s invidious situation to a manipulative, tear-wringing degree, Nowhere Special takes things very slowly and without any sort of hype, letting the relationship between John and his son Michael play out in its reassuring natural beats all while “new friends” (that’s what John tells Michael the families they are meeting are) are met with, and predictably, largely dispensed with.

John never really gives in to any form of histrionics but with everything on his taciturn plate, he would have every reason in his small, happy, pint-sized world to do so.

Not only is he dying, forced to confront again and again that he will never see his son grow up, never see him go to big school or get his first girlfriend or boyfriend – Pasolini subtly inserts small but pivotally wrenching scenes here and there where John glimpses holding his daughter aloft in a cafe or a young boy in full uniform crossing the road in front of him – but he must find some way to help Michael come to terms with his father’s impending death too.

At first, John is deeply reluctant, concerned only, as he always is, with protecting his son.

Despite the urging of Shona and her boss to be honest with Michael and make him a memory box so he can remember his dad later on when he’s ready to – into the box go precious keepsakes, letters and cards to be opened on certain birthdays and photos – John honestly thinks his son will be better off not even knowing he had a dad other than his adoptive one whoever that may be.

Watching John, who expresses his love for his son over and over in small and quiet ways that make you sigh with happiness before you weep with what is looming in the not-too-distant future, wrestle with how to tell his son, whether to tell his son, that his beloved dad is dying, all but mandates all the tissues you can lay your hands on.

Again, not because Nowhere Special plays this epic but thoughtfully expressed struggle for cheap and easy tears, but because it resonates with so much truth and raw humanity and you know John is having to come to some momentous decisions all while his precious, beloved life is slipping through his fingers.

In the middle of these two great titanic shifts, either of which has the capacity to fill an entire movie with emotions as vast as the sea, John and Michael are meeting a host of of different families from varied social strata, some sincerely wanting to add a loving child to their family, others acting as if he is another acquisition to add to a life already replete with a slew of other possessions.

The only one of this mixed and varied group that comes across with any depth of meaning and sincerity is single woman Laura (Louise Matthews) who forgets John, Michael and Shona are coming and so, in contrast to everyone else, is unguarded and unrehearsed in a way that suggests she could be the one to look after him.

It’s likely the only time Nowhere Special is a little obvious about its intentions but it works as a scene simply because it stands in stark contrast to everyone else, all of whom are sincere in their own way but who add to John’s growing sense of unease that he might get this very important decision wrong.

The anguish of making sure his son ends up with the “right” people is written in silently-expressed torment all across his face, and while he does kick his car in anger one day and voice his deep fears about the future to Shona, much of his struggle takes place facially only, evidence of the evocative performance delivered by Norton whose understated approach works in a film not prone to overstating itself to powerful effect.

For all of the waiting for the other gigantic shoe to drop that consumes Nowhere Special in the most hauntingly quiet of ways, what emerges from this heartfelt, charming film is a sense of how powerful love can be and how Michael, for all the great loss he soon to experience, has already been given a tremendous gift by his father – knowing what it is to be wholly accepted and unreservedly loved.

While he may not remember concrete things about his early when he is older, he is likely to remember that he was loved and that is greatest joy of this emotionally intense film which even in its final scene goes slowly and softly where others films would have gone for the obvious and the sentimentally overdone.

Inspired by a true story, Nowhere Special is one of the year’s best films, pouring a lifetime worth of love and memories into 96 intensely emotional but marvellously understated minutes that will remind you what real love looks like, that there is hope even in the darkest of situations, and that you should tell people you love them and hug them and be with them while there is still time.

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