Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Nowhere Special’ is a Masterpiece of Compassion


Director: Uberto Pasolini
Writer: Uberto Pasolini
Stars: James Norton, Daniel Lamont, Carol Moore

Synopsis: When John, a thirty-five-year-old window cleaner, is given only a few months to live, he attempts to find a new, perfect family for his three-year-old son, determined to shield him from the terrible reality of the situation.


Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special could have fallen into many “poverty tourism” traps. Yet through sheer sincerity, boundless love, and the strength of community which surrounds John (James Norton) and his precious son Michael (Daniel Lamont), the film makes every tear shed a diamond.

John is a window washer and single father. His life is looking into worlds he has no access to. Apartments he could never afford. Shops filled with goods which are beyond his financial reach. Most significantly, a kind of life he is trying to imagine for his four-year-old son. John is only thirty-four, but he is dying of an aggressive brain stem cancer. A child of foster homes himself and without family, he is Michael’s entire world. And soon he will be gone.

Photo Credit: Cohen Media Group

Nowhere Special takes place over the space of approximately eight weeks. John’s sudden diagnosis and circumstances pushed him to the front of the line with social services and the foster and adoption system in Belfast. He needs to find Michael a home — a forever home, ideally with two parents. John wants what he didn’t have, an opportunity for a better life. While that is essentially what many parents wish for their children, they don’t have a clock ticking forcing them to make what they perceive as life altering decisions for their child.

The focus is on John’s relationship with Michael — played with a naturalism which proves that James Norton and Daniel Lamont formed a bond during filming which carries over onto the screen. Never for a moment does the audience doubt that the pair are father and son. John is tender, emotionally present, and filled with pride for his boy. He is also getting increasingly weak and although he is trying to hide his illness from Michael, he is aware that the sensitive youngster is acting out because he knows something isn’t right.

Over a series of meetings in which social worker Shona (Eileen O’Higgins) acts as a quiet intermediary, John introduces Michael to potential adoptive parents. From a well-to-do couple who could provide Michael with a grand house and private education, to working class people who feel they have room in their hearts and homes for a child. John is dragging his feet on making a decision because he believed he would be able to distinguish almost immediately who the right people would be. Is it the blended family with a raucous household filled with other adopted and fostered children? Or is it a single woman, Ella (Valerie O’Connor) who was forced to give up her own baby at the age of sixteen and due to complications with that pregnancy was unable to have another child?

As much as John feels he is carrying the sole  burden of choice for Michael, he is not left alone to emotionally deal with what his impending death means. His elderly friend Rosemary (Stella McCusker) speaks of her own grief in losing her husband of fifty years. Her wisdom about how we are never truly without the ones we love when they are gone gives John the vocabulary to speak to Michael about what is happening. 

Photo Credit: Cohen Media Group

Trying to balance the toughness of his upbringing with the tenderness he feels for Michael, John believes that when he breaks down with exhaustion, grief, and frustration he has failed. Rosemary reminds him, “That’s not weakness, my angel, it’s love.”

When anyone asks John what he would like Michael to remember of him he baulks at the question. His answers range from “I’m just a window cleaner,” to “I created him but robbed him of a family.” Michael’s birth mother left to return to Russia months after he was born leaving no forwarding address. In John’s mind, he doesn’t want Michael to remember him at all. To do so would mean Michael would have to confront the kind of continual abandonment John felt through his life. 

Uberto Pasolini’s screenplay and direction eschews cheap and manipulative sentiment. John and Michael’s small house is already a shrine to their love for each other. On almost every wall Michael’s art takes pride of place. Michael mirrors his father. Drawing texta tattoos on his skin to be like Dad. Bedtime reading, discussions of puppies, a birthday party just for two, cutting grapes so they will be exactly right, a temper tantrum about the wrong pajamas, a child quietly and instinctively nursing his father. Laughter and adoration create a halo of warmth.

James Norton is an under-the-radar talent, and Nowhere Special proves his versatility and commitment to imbuing the right role with exactly what is required to make the character unforgettable. Every time the camera moves to John’s point of view, the audience experiences his own grief. John is angry he is dying because he will not be there to watch his son grow. Every family he sees, often through windows, has time — the one commodity no one can buy nor bank. 

Daniel Lamont as Michael is a revelation. Films about the relationship between child and parent often live or die on the performance of the child in question. Daniel’s rapport with James is perfect. Daniel’s eyes searching for answers but also hiding from them are once again windows into an infinite world — that of what a small boy knows.

Ably supported by O’Higgins, McCusker, and O’Connor; Norton and Lamont are placed inside a drama which doesn’t shy from just how arbitrary and unfair life can be. Despite the melancholy of the situation, Nowhere Special is celebrating the people whose contributions to a life, or lives, are filled with kindness. There are people who leave little behind but blurred and sometimes bad memories — but there are also those who continue to exist in the air, the water, the sun which warms you, or an evocative sense memory.

Nowhere Special is a masterpiece. Pasolini along with his cast and crew earn every moment of investment in John and Michael’s story. A profoundly compassionate film which is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Grade: A+

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