‘Norman’ faces hard realities

Parker Otto

“Norman,” which screened 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St, proved to be one of the most compelling films in the Richard Jenkins Film Series by combining teen struggles with heavy subject matters.

The film’s protagonist Norman, played by Dan Byrd, is a high school student who struggles with depression after the death of his mother and cares for his cancer-stricken father, played by Richard Jenkins. Norman’s life takes a turn when he meets Emily, played by Emily VanCamp, and he ultimately finds a way to confront the demons of his past.

Byrd takes the cake as Norman. He is quickly set up as a loser with very few friends, and self-harms. Every day at 3:36 p.m., the time his mother died in a car crash for which Norman feels responsible, he hurts himself in some way, whether it’s punching himself or speaking in public.

The pain Norman goes through is made worse by seeing his father deteriorate because of his cancer. Eventually, all this pain leads Norman to fake having cancer to gain sympathy and feel accepted. While this scenario may sound inappropriate for a character the audience is supposed to sympathize with, because of the demons he has, it’s understandable to see why he does this.

He fully commits by shaving his head and studying charts of his father’s stomach to gain a better understanding of the diease. He’s not faking out of a selfish need for attention, but out of a desperation most likely stemming from his mental illness.

This is where Emily comes in. Emily is, in many ways, the opposite of Norman, as she’s more outgoing and positive. They bond over both trivial items such as “Monty Python” and more meaningful subjects like their ideas of relationships. She gives Norman a reason to have hope and be happy with life. Every moment that the couple share on screen bursts with chemistry.

Other standouts of the film are Jenkins and Adam Goldberg, who plays Norman’s English teacher. Goldberg’s role as Norman’s teacher is interesting because of his unconventional discussions with Norman, which are both truthful and humorous. Jenkins gives a vulnerability not seen in the series since his performance in “Dear John.”

What makes the film stand out is how it addresses the mental instabilities of the main character. Films about teenagers have tackled adolescent insecurities, but many of them deal with outside forces as the main enemy, like in “Rebel Without a Cause” or “The Edge of Seventeen.” In the case of “Norman,” the conflict comes from within Norman as he reckons what fault he played in his family’s misfortune.

A motif throughout the film is a knife which Norman ponders killing himself with. After the his father passes and Norman tells everyone he never had cancer, he discovers that life is out there, and he must take it. Seeing him throw the knife away at the end of the film and let Emily into his house is one of the most empowering endings of any film in this series. “Norman” shows teenage life in a very mature way, and it’s one of the best of the genre.