A dying father seeks a new family for his young son.
There are times when I want to have my heart broken at the movies and times when I most definitely don’t. I’m currently in a “definitely don’t” phase, and had been deliberately avoiding Nowhere Special, but the recent heatwave sent me to the local cinema in desperate need of aircon, and this was the only film which slotted in before school pick-up times (such are the prosaic bounds within which reviewers with children tend to work).
While neither mawkishly sentimental nor depressing, Nowhere Special is certainly emotional, and utterly heartbreaking. I welled up almost from the first and then suddenly, at one particular point, the floodgates opened.
It’s a wonderful film but I could have done without crying out that much water when it was 30 degrees outside. My body was desiccated.
James Norton plays John, a window cleaner who has brought up his young son Michael in a city in Northern Ireland since the boy’s mother left them when he was a baby. John is now terminally ill, and trying to find a family to adopt Michael when he’s gone. As John’s body slows, his mind is increasingly racing, sorting and assessing would-be parents before his time runs out.
Often alone, so entwined are the two of them that they come across as one unit. Michael quietly tries to match his stride to his father’s, and then his father to his, as they walk along. It’s one of the tiny beautifully-judged details, scoping out their relationship, that make the reality of what John has to do so heartbreaking — far more than typical movie manipulations around terminal illness.
In fact the film avoids the pitfalls of emotional hospital meetings and shock diagnosis, or indeed John’s decision to find a new family for Michael, entirely. The process is already underway when we meet them, which makes us feel like yet more pairs of eyes peering into their life. John does his fair share of peering too: trying to take in every detail in each family meeting, terrified of missing something vital; or staring into the rooms of his customers, the minutiae of strangers’ lives revealed by squeegee as he cleans their windows.
Free time is spent meeting prospective families. Some of them have more red flags than a Soviet parade, while others would probably work — but there’s always something, a fact or a feeling.
What John hasn’t done, and is too scared to do, is tell Michael what is wrong with him and why they are visiting all these families. Of course Michael (Daniel Lamont, a natural) twigs that something is going on.
It’s a rare situation, as his social workers tell him, with John, Michael — who doesn’t even what death is — and trainee social worker Shona (Eileen O’Higgins) visiting family after family to find the best fit for the boy.
Everyone has their quirks and everyone gives too much away as they try to explain to John which they should be able to adopt Michael. These vignettes are clever enough to raise a worry while mostly avoiding stereotypes. John wants Michael to have the opportunities he never had, but what counts as an opportunity varies across families and classes. Some are nice but irritating, some are thoughtful but have their hands full, one or two would have enjoyed a fulfilling career as a Victorian workhouse supervisor.
A child glares at Michael across a table, while a single woman is loving and open, but John wants a two-parent family for his son. Some of the upvotes come tied to downvotes; the genuinely-meant offer of a puppy from the same family who would send Michael off to boarding school.
In a world where entertainment is mostly based on judging, we are also constantly told not to judge, but what can John do but judge? The decision seems to get harder not easier. Describing his regular customers in a little book for the buyer of his window cleaning round is much more straightforward. All around in Nowhere Special is the desperate tallying up of character and relationships, the forlorn hope that a mathematical formula can suppress the shifting sands of instinct and feelings.
The social workers point out they’re already bending the rules for what is a highly unusual case; they are on firmer, more established ground when giving him children’s books about death, and persuading him to create a memory box. A memory box means delving into his own past too though, which sheds light on where he is from and how much history can repeat.
This is a spare, quiet and sometimes bleakly funny film, and Norton is superb — mesmerising, even — as John struggles with his choices, focusing on tiny family details that deliberately muddy the waters so he doesn’t have to make the decision. Choosing Michael’s new parents means admitting, and accepting, that he will die and leave Michael; but it also means John accepting his own past and trusting his judgement so it won’t be repeated. The adorable Daniel Lamont is quiet but knowing, twigging that something is changing but unable work out what.
It’s a perfectly-paced story from Pasolini, taking us from John and Michael’s family life as they still hang on to mundanity, through the turmoil of a desperate man’s mind, to some kind of eventual peace, accepting help while still going his own way. And yes there is a “happy” ending.
Nowhere Special is in UK cinemas now
Watch the Nowhere Special trailer: