Reminiscent of the late-1980’s Brit cult pics “Paperhouse” and “The Reflecting Skin” in its disturbing union of misfit-childhood drama with metaphorical horror and surrealist elements, “The Nature of Nicholas” reps an accomplished if not entirely satisfying feature debut for Winnipeg writer-director Jeff Erbach. Bizarre yet low-key pic’s unclassifiable character will make arthouse outreach challenging (though still possible). Regardless, effort merits further fest showcasing, and could attract a dedicated fan base over the long haul while helmer moves on to bigger projects.
Set in a vaguely late-’50s/early-’60s rural milieu, story centers on the awkward pubescence of sixth grader Nicholas (Jeff Sutton), whose pilot father died in a crash some time before. That event left a huge gap in the lives of both son and mother (Ardith Boxall), and mom is distressed that her only child seems to be growing more remote.
Nicholas’ sole friend is athletic Bobby (David Turnbull), who’s beginning to notice girls. That terrain as yet holds little interest for Nicholas, though he duly plays along with a spin-the-bottle groping game at a basement party. His feelings toward Bobby are more intense by far, and may be nudging toward the sexual.
But Nicholas doesn’t understand those urges yet, any more than he does the phantom appearances of a ghost-dad (Tom McCamus) whom no one else sees — and who occasionally voices encouraging words via the unsettling device of sticking medical pincers through people’s spines and speaking “through” them, ventriloquist-style.
After protag impulsively kisses a discomfited Bobby, latter suddenly appears weakened and green-skinned, like a Z-movie zombie. But this pathetic creature is not the real thing — it’s a doppelganger, a flesh expression of discarded childhood self or unwanted sexual desires, that the “normal” Bobby would prefer to let die. Nicholas keeps it stashed in a shed, however, then hides the passive ghoul in his bedroom. Resolution is in keeping with feature’s restrained treatment of both naturalistic and fantastical aspects, though it leaves some viewers shrugging a disappointed “So what?”
Never quite tipping scales into outright horror, pic maintains an ambiguous, queasy hyper-real tenor that sustains the deliberate pacing and often murky symbolism. Flat agricultural landscapes outside Winnipeg are strikingly used by d.p. Brian Rougeau, while soundtrack almost entirely void of music (Ken Gregory contribs an abstract sound design) adds further to atmosphere on the cusp between daydream and nightmare.
Juvenile performers are superbly handled, though their dialogue sometimes grows a tad too mature. Adult thesps, all more or less unknown save familiar face McCamus, are equally fine — Boxall is excellent as a retro model housewife (complete with Jello for dessert) visibly frazzled by her child’s increasing secrecy. Robert Huculak has some nice moments as a suitor.
Entire package makes fine use of limited means, with spare yet detail-perfect production values in synch with story’s subtly disorienting gist.