Ingratiating “Norman” starts out in familiar latter-day teen-comedy territory, its protag an alleged misfit who’s brighter and funnier than any of his classmates. But Jonathan Segal’s polished sophomore feature (following 2004’s “The Last Run”) — scenarist Talton Wingate’s first — effectively grows more serious as it confronts the already grieving hero with the imminent loss of a second parent. Theatrical prospects are modest, but the pic is a natural for home-format pickups.
Titular figure (“Cougar Town’s” Dan Byrd) is an 18-year-old Washington state high schooler who prefers to lay low, keeping his wry observations to himself — not that any of his peers would likely get the joke. He’s horrified when a casual display of existential thinking prompts caustic English teacher Mr. Angelo (Adam Goldberg, providing a nice streak of misanthropic vinegar) to insist he represent his class in a motivational speech contest. Norman is also flummoxed, if more pleasantly, when pretty new student Emily (“Brothers and Sisters'” Emily Van Camp) makes it clear she considers him dating material — the first time anyone has expressed such interest.
But these developments can only distract so much from Norman’s depressing home situation. Not only did his beloved mother die in a car accident fairly recently, but father Doug (Richard Jenkins) is seriously ill with stomach cancer. He can no longer work, spending his days on the living room couch resisting calls for more futile chemotherapy so that he can at least share final weeks or months uninterrupted with his soon-to-be-orphaned only child.
Adding to Norman’s stress is the fact that he has chosen not to confide these circumstances to anyone. Ergo when best/sole friend James (Billy Lush) chews him out for being self-absorbed, protag Norman impulsively shoots back that he has terminal stomach cancer — and he happens to be carrying dad’s latest X-rays to prove it.
This news spreads like wildfire at school; suddenly jock bullies are apologizing for past misdeeds, cute girls swooning over yesterday’s loser-turned-tragically noble figure.
Premise up to this point recalls last year’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” similarly using a snowballing fib to lampoon the ambulance-chasing relationship between morbidity and celebrity. But unlike that primarily satirical exercise, “Norman” gradually ditches the snark in favor of poignant, understated dramatics. Father and son’s final scene together is a perfectly judged example of restraint maximizing emotional impact.
Jenkins is fine as usual, Byrd appealingly antic and pained by turns; their familial rapport feels very natural. Likewise, Norman’s first romance is handled without cliched beats.
Assembly is accomplished on a budget. Indie rock darling Andrew Bird contributes songs and an original score.