This tender drama about a Belfast window cleaner and his young son truly is something special.
March 24, 2022
If the way that cinema depicts cancer was plotted out on a scale, Babyteeth and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could easily demonstrate its extremes. One sees its protagonist as a person first and a patient last; the other uses terminal illness as a catalyst for other people's sorrows and struggles (the "dying girl" part of its moniker, right there at the end, is oh-so-telling about how it regards someone with cancer as little but an afterthought). Nowhere Special thankfully sits at the Babyteeth end of the spectrum. That said, its premise screams weepie, and being moved by its story happens easily. But there's an enormous difference between earning that response through an intimate and delicate story about a person's plight — and, here, their quest to provide for the person dearest to them after they're gone — and merely treating their life-and-death tussle as easy grist for the tear-jerking mill.
Nowhere Special follows a 35-year-old single father in Belfast, John (James Norton, Little Women), who needs to find an adoptive family for his four-year-old boy (first-timer Daniel Lamont). His cancer has progressed, and now the doting dad and window cleaner's days are numbered, so he's determined to save his son Michael from more sorrow than his absence will naturally bring — in a situation that's pure emotion-courting fodder, but never manipulatively treated as such. Indeed, writer/director Uberto Pasolini opts for understatement and realism, including over overtly endeavouring to incite the kind of non-stop waterworks that most movies with this premise would eagerly turn on. The filmmaker's last feature, 2013's Still Life, was also just as beautifully measured and tender without mawkishness. Although the gap between his two latest pictures is sizeable time-wise, Pasolini hasn't lost his touch for making sensitive and affecting cinema.
Suffering an illness that's turned fatal, and possessing little energy to get through everything that comes with being a single father, John's own fate isn't his primary concern. Nowhere Special takes time to dwell in the routine that marks its protagonist's remaining days — washing panes of glass, making the most of the time he has left with Michael, trying to secure his son new parents, feeling exhausted by all of it but still soldiering on while he can — which seems both mundane and extraordinary in tandem. The always-unspoken fact that life goes on even when it doesn't lingers throughout the film, as stark as a freshly cleaned, newly gleaming window, and contributes to the prevailing bittersweet mood. That's Nowhere Special's baseline. As it charts John's efforts to get Michael the best future he possibly can without himself in it, it soaks in the ups and downs of the pair's life together, recognising that it's both ordinary and remarkable — because all lives are.
The search at hand is a difficult one, even when pursued with the best of intentions — by John and with the help of social worker Shona (Eileen O'Higgins, Misbehaviour). Unsurprisingly, finding the right people, or person, to entrust your child to forever is a heartbreaking job, and the weight of what John grapples with never fades from the film's emotional landscape. Features that treat ailing characters so considerately may be uncommon, and they are; however, pictures that willingly face the complicated questions, worries and fears that come with knowing your existence is about to end are rarer still. It might come as little surprise that Pasolini found his tale in reality, reportedly after reading a newspaper article about a man in the same circumstances as John, but how gracefully, attentively and still unflinchingly Nowhere Special fleshes out its story never fails to astonish.
Both visually and in his storytelling, Pasolini's approach is to dwell on small moments, as well as times shared in passing that might be forgotten by many but mean the world to John. See: the type of mirrored behaviour that a young son adopts from his dad, the sight of them walking around in matching baseball caps, and the joy that Michael gets from washing his toy truck — doing what his dad does in a way that he can, and showing how he idolises his father without needing to voice it. There's an unfussy, unsentimental but always empathetic feel to the Northern Ireland-set movie, and every shot, including in John's mission to relish every second that remains, and with his interviews with prospective new parents both doting and disastrous. While a lesser movie would've used the latter for comedic purposes, that's never part of Nowhere Special's remit.
With windows such a key focus — being cleaned and peering into homes that might become Michael's — it's also little wonder that viewing Nowhere Special resembles gazing into a slice of life that isn't just poignant but cherished. Perhaps better known for his television work to-date courtesy of Black Mirror, McMafia, Grantchester and Happy Valley, Norton offers a glimpse into John's soul via his exceptional performance, which conveys a world of devotion and sorrow even when he isn't saying anything. In fact, Pasolini uses dialogue sparingly between his two main characters, knowing that this father-son duo don't always require words to express what they mean, and also recognising that finding the right thing to utter is arduous on both sides. With the also-magnificent Lamont, Norton inhabits scenes of comfortable and treasured silence. Also made plain as a result: that Michael's young mind will only keep the haziest of memories from these times, so it's the loving mood that truly matters above all else.
Nowhere Special is easy to sum up: in contrast to its name, it's something outstanding. Its potency also springs from the lens it turns on the kind of character that's infrequently given such thoughtful attention, with or without terminal cancer. Every dollar counts for John, but it's clear that he spends what he has on Michael — as seen in the kid's new clothes and bedding — rather than himself. He's had his own experiences in the social-services system, which beats at the heart of his quest to lock in his son's future. He's been robbed of most of life's opportunities, and he's devoted to ensuring the same doesn't happen for his boy. He's also still wounded by Michael's mother leaving without providing any contact details in her absence, and he's as doting a dad that anyone could ask for. Thanks to both Pasolini and Norton, John is a fleshed-out portrait of someone on the margins, even before his illness factors in. Feeling for his plight isn't just a case of heartstring-tugging; here, it comes as naturally as breathing.
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