Adolescence is often portrayed as a matter of life and death, but that’s pretty much the case in helmer Ian FitzGibbon’s coming-of-age-with-cancer romance “Death of a Superhero.” Pic sidesteps cloying sentimentality and heavy-handedness with the help of a solid cast, led by Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a budding graphic novelist whose days may be numbered, but whose imagination fills the screen with macabre cartoons fueled by anger, frustration and an artistic soul. Mix of live-action and animation could attract a youth audience, but the pic’s general appeal will lie in its honesty and touching performances.
Adapted by screenwriter Andrew McCarten from his own novel, the film relocates the story from New Zealand to Dublin (owing to the involvement of Grand Pictures and the Irish Film Board) and has the virtues of a strong cast. But its chief onscreen innovation is the way it swings between toon and live-action characters, a daredevil trapeze act that keeps it from succumbing to mawkishness and helps to distract from an otherwise fairly rudimentary narrative.
Donald (Brodie-Sangster), lank, pale and bald from chemo, imagines cartoon eruptions that feature his muscular, mute alter ego as well as his arch enemy, the Glove, a villain with syringes for fingers (his sexy, busty accomplice embodies a more typical teenage fantasy). Brodie-Sangster has a challenging role on his hands in that Donald is not an object of pity; he’s funny and keeps things in perspective, except when his fuming anger gets the better of him, prompting the misbehavior that keeps his parents (Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan) on tenterhooks.
As fine as McElhatton and Horgan are, they’re overshadowed by two standouts in addition to Brodie-Sangster. One is Andy Serkis, who plays Dr. Adrian King, the unorthodox death therapist, or thanatologist, to whom Donald’s parents bring their son and with whom he forms a bond. Serkis is something of a revelation, perhaps because his best-known roles have him disguised as something otherworldly or animalistic (Caesar in the recent “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” for instance, or Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), and here is very human indeed.
FitzGibbon’s other natural resource is the superb Aisling Loftus (“Oranges and Sunshine”) as Shelly, a wry, acerbic teen who seems to be 16 going on 37 and gives Donald precisely what he needs: a reason to feel attractive and alive to someone other than his parents.
Death of a Superhero” doesn’t sugarcoat anything — neither cancer nor the awkward, unpleasant ways people deal with it. It’s a far cry from the broader comedy of the current “50/50,” but there’s a kinship between both films in their attempts to make cancer something other than a plot point or an ominous death sentence, and to acknowledge that people ordinarily deal with incipient catastrophe through a mix of unhappiness and laughter, graveyard humor and tears. In doing this, FitzGibbon (“Perrier’s Bounty”) has achieved something special; even a late scene, in which Donald’s friends (with Dr. King as an accomplice) arrange for a prostitute to ensure that Donald doesn’t die a virgin, is handled well. Much of the credit for this goes to Jessica Schwarz, playing one of the more sensitive hookers in recent cinema.
Production values are good, although the music cues are occasionally ridiculous.