There’s not a lot of time left, but the adoption agency working with John (James Norton) is doing their best to maintain his belief that they will find the right place for his four-year-old son Michael (Daniel Lamont). Why is it so important? Because John isn’t simply leaving the boy behind. He’s dying of a terminal disease. And with Michael’s mother already having left him at six months old, the last thing John wants is to leave him alone. This is therefore as much a gift for the child as it is for the father. To give Michael a home means giving him the chance at a life John never had himself as well as a necessary peace of mind for him to eventually let go.

Writer-director Uberto Pasolini crafted Nowhere Special after hearing the true-life story of a man in John’s circumstances. It’s a subject ripe for emotion and drama––one that lends itself to an intimate scale and modest budget so everything in front of and behind the camera can go towards the tone and authenticity of these heartfelt, tragic, ultimately hopeful characters. Because despite the obviously sad overtones, there remains a wealth of joy. Norton and Lamont have cultivated a memorable rapport that feels familial during the good times (jamming 34 red candles onto a lopsided cake) and the bad (a tantrum when the pajamas Michael wants to wear are unavailable in the wash). Love is always in the air.

Beyond this exercise in finding Michael a worthy replacement for himself is also the subtle (and not-so-subtle) socio-economic commentary with which such a situation is destined to collide. The more overt cases come in the form of unruly clients who hire John as their window-washer only to berate and demean him for their assumptions towards his “class” instead of engaging with him as a human to truly understand the rapid decline of his health. The more nuanced cases come from the meetings with families. There’s the rich yet well-meaning couple with a huge house. The overbearing yet relatable working-class couple wearing their blue collars as a possible advantage. And the loving chaos of a family that already has six-plus kids.

Who should John choose? He comes into the process (helped by Eileen O’Higgins’ kindly Shona) assuming the answer will arrive with ease. He wants Michael to have a mom and dad. A “normal” life with money and opportunity. Yet some of these couples are certifiably insane (Niamh McGrady and Caolan Byrne are a case study in needing a license to have kids). Most are kind, yet find themselves auditioning/interviewing for John rather than Michael––unintentionally forgetting their excitement to become parents should be secondary to the child’s comfort and happiness. So it’s a breath of fresh air when Ella (Valerie O’Connor) opens her door to both a mess and the sole genuine instance of caring about Michael’s past as much as his future.

It’s an eye-opener for us as a welcome palette-cleanser, for John a kick-in-the-pants realization that being a good father (despite his circumstances) should have been the only reason he needed to throw the capitalistic lie of a “perfect nuclear family” out the window. It’s not about storybook tradition or cliché. It’s about love. It’s about John spending every second he can with Michael, even as his ability to pick him up or pour a glass of orange juice becomes compromised. To hear Ella’s questions is to put a face to the abstract notions Shona has been trying to tell him about––like creating a memory box to ensure Michael has tangible objects with which to remember his dad.

The script is a tearjerker because of such recognitions. Whether John coming to terms with his inability to keep working or the gradual inevitability that Michael has been gleaning what’s going on without his father needing to tell him. Kids are smart. They know when change occurs and they retain words like “adoption” and “death” through repetition. John can only protect his son for so long before the truth is no longer hidden. And how much of that “protection” is a byproduct of his own denial and refusal to come to terms with the reality of what’s happening, as though he can simply disappear without anyone knowing? So many characters show him that’s surely not the case.

It makes it so a later scene resonates well beyond the credits. John is sitting with an older neighbor / client, talking about how he was brought up to never show emotion. To “be strong.” Thus he isn’t one to ask for help; he’s a hard worker who takes pride in taking care of himself and his son. So while we don’t see the tears he admits well up when he drops Michael off at school, we do see his reaction to friends lifting him up with a free pint or car repairs. They know his plight and his character. They know he wouldn’t accept a hug (nor are they the type to necessarily give one), but they can silently, pointedly acknowledge his reality just the same.

That honesty is often forgotten in these films. Everyone wants grand moments of melodramatic epiphany to approximate profundity, neglecting the more naturalistic and relatable ones steeped in silent reverie and introspection. Give me John looking at Michael and smiling instead. That’s the heart of a story like this. The reason he’s suffering through his body’s pain and the emotional toll interviewing his replacement brings. And Norton is wonderful in the role, lending it a vulnerability that shines through the stoic nature of a man doing his best to show no fear. We can only hope that same fearlessness will help him drop his presumptions and choose the home that’s right for Michael rather than the one his imagination created. The answer is easy after all.

Nowhere Special opens on April 26.

Grade: B

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