Chances are, Norman would have seemed like a retread whenever it came out, but it does the movie no favors to release it in the shadow of Terri and Submarine, both far more compelling portraits of high-school loners, and both released to DVD in the last few weeks. Dan Byrd—looking, like co-star Emily VanCamp, far too old to be still in high school, at least without being held back several times—plays a bright, socially awkward student dealing with his mother’s recent death and his father’s terminal cancer. Desperate to unburden himself, he turns a theater audition into a confession of his recent suicide attempt, but the gimmick backfires; no one realizes he’s telling the truth, and he doesn’t even get the part. Teacher Adam Goldberg tries to lend an understanding ear, but Byrd is too uneasy to open up without the scrim of fiction.
So it is that Byrd comes to pass off his dying dad’s X-rays as his own, and with the speed of teenage gossip, soon the whole school is convinced he’s dying of cancer. He’d already made inroads with pretty transfer student VanCamp, but his purported diagnosis both cements and complicates their relationship. At times, Norman feels like two different movies running on parallel tracks, one in which Byrd and VanCamp tearily come to terms with his impending mortality, and one in which he bumblingly tries to contain the fallout from his initial deception. Perhaps there was a disjuncture between director Jonathan Segal and screenwriter Talton Wingate, or the two first-timers didn’t realize how difficult their movie-world premise makes it to take anything else in the film seriously. It doesn’t help that Byrd starts off sitcom-glib and only gains a third dimension late in the game. VanCamp and especially Jenkins invest their parts with nuance and conviction, but the movie is too scattershot to take full advantage. Andrew Bird’s score melds the requisite quirk with more profound undercurrents, but the mixture doesn’t gel. By the time Norman nose-dives into outright tearjerkery, it’s yanked the audience in so many different directions, it’s hard to know which way is up.