James Norton's connection with child actor Daniel Lamont elevates a terminal illness drama that avoids the genre's saccharine pitfalls
With the premise of a terminally ill single dad attempting to find a suitable foster home for his adorable four-year-old son before he passes on, you might not expect Nowhere Special to be a particularly emotionally subtle film. While there are of course some explosions of wrenching sadness, though, Uberto Pasolini’s film has the skill and smarts to tap into the more understated, unknowable currents of grief and parental responsibility, making for a moving drama that really earns its most tearjerking moments.
The dad in question is John (James Norton), a 34 year old window cleaner clearly entering the final months of his life, balancing his work with constant trips across Northern Ireland on the search for the perfect replacement parents for the absurdly cute Michael (Daniel Lamont). Pasolini trusts the audience to put the pieces of the story here together themselves, doling out exposition naturalistically as John and Michael go from house to house.
At the heart of Nowhere Special is the amazing connection between Norton and Lamont. You don’t doubt the father-son bond for even a second, and there’s an unspoken understanding between the two that borders on a kind of psychic connection that movies can very rarely capture. John reads Michael and vice versa, and it’s not only touchingly beautiful, but allows Pasolini to wordlessly let the audience into the minds of the characters.
Norton, quickly becoming one of the UK’s most reliably excellent actors, really grounds John’s impossible circumstances, making them relatable through small moments of everyday triumph and tragedy. A lot of the performances from the supporting cast playing the various prospective families are quite broad, but Norton lets you know everything you need through glances and gestures. When he’s taken aback by an accidentally callous turn of phrase, it really stings, and when he witnesses a connection between Michael and a strong candidate it warms the heart.
Nowhere Special is sentimental by nature, but avoids being saccharine (other than, perhaps, a rather overegged final shot) through both Norton’s commanding presence in the lead and a more honest portrayal of terminal illness than films like this often bother with. It’s still not a perfect display – the worst pains of the unspecified sickness all come at very plot-convenient moments – but it’s not prettified in the way that cancer dramas often fall foul of. John looks like a broken man for most of the story, all sunken eyes and pallid skin that seems to shift between yellow and grey – credit to great makeup work that radiates discomfort but, correctly, chooses to stop short of the outright grisly.
It’s a remarkable feat on the parts of both Pasolini and Norton to coax such an extraordinary performance from Lamont. Having such a young child be the keystone to a film is a major gamble, but here it’s one that pays off in a big way until you’re just as invested as John in where Michael ends up, privately weighing up the pros and cons of every family you see. Humane and kind, but with a bit of sting when it needs it, Nowhere Special is the kind of grown-up, insightful weepy that you wish they’d make more of.
Nowhere Special is now showing in cinemas.Where to watch