A would-be dark dramedy that fairly reeks of a self-congratulatory scent, Norman lacks the will and know-how to push at audience’s boundaries with either transgressive laughter or an honest engagement with its themes of death and teen depression. Its antihero, a high school senior played by Dan Byrd with a junior-league Topher Grace’s mix of the sardonic and the timorous (plus an unfortunate habit of swallowing his lines), copes with his suicidal thoughts and the terminal stomach cancer of his father (Richard Jenkins) by blurting out to his only friend that he’s the one dying; his fraud snowballs and makes him the most condescended-to kid instead of the class weirdo. Norman’s mother, recently killed in a car wreck, is still present on the household’s phone greeting, and after holding a knife to his chest every night, her son commemorates the time of her fatal accident at 3:36 p.m. every day by inflicting a moment of emotional or physical pain on himself.
All this overdetermined morbidity can’t begin to elevate Norman above the level of a cutesy-with-scars trifle. The boy’s tormentors are pretty lightweight, and the prettiest, most charming girl around (Emily VanCamp)—curiously without a posse, and even more strangely willing to reenact Monty Python sketches with Norman—makes overtures to his spazzy self even before his malignant deception begins. As the fading dad, a physician who’s stopped chemotherapy so he can spend all but his final hours at home, Jenkins hits some reliable notes of pathos, but the rookie screenplay by Talton Wingate restricts him to an affectionate low-key joker.
Director Jonathan Segal makes some visual hay from the picturesque woods and bridges of Spokane, and indie composer Andrew Bird’s score employs whistling and horns pleasantly enough, but the story’s dangling ends are everywhere, save for the easily anticipated exposure of Norman’s faux illness. (Assigned in the opening minutes to deliver an assembly speech by Adam Goldberg’s cosmically blasé English teacher, we can be sure that third-act sorrows will make it a Very Special Speech indeed.) Alternately maudlin and snarky, Norman just doesn’t risk enough, and can be consigned to the status of what the school drama geek would call “some contemporary, obscure, teen-angst thing.”