‘Nowhere Special’ Review: Understated Terminal Illness Drama Earns Your Tears

Uberto Pasolini’s “Nowhere Special” is delicately tinted by profound shades of imminent grief. As a 35-year-old, terminally ill single father in Northern Ireland, John (a quietly powerful James Norton) grieves his impending demise and the inevitable fact that he will vacate his four-year-old son Michael’s (Daniel Lamont) life permanently and prematurely. A Belfast window washer, John sees the reflections of his grief everywhere as he scrubs and shines surface after surface. In one scene, it’s the headstones on display in the window of a funeral parlor. In another, it’s a dad happily picking up his baby inside a restaurant. That’s just John’s every day on the other side of a glass facade, with stark glimpses into what’s coming and what he will soon lose.

Meanwhile, his often silent and always observant toddler Michael deals with his own share of grief, at an age he doesn’t have any context or vocabulary for the mortality of a loved one. As most parents do, John tries to protect Michael as best he could from the grim idea of death. Still, the little one can’t avoid the truth entirely, not when he accompanies John from home to home in his dad’s attempt to find the perfect family to take in and raise Michael. A young, kindly adoption agency employee helps them out in John’s quest, as he interviews those desiring to become Michael’s caregivers in a future John won’t be a part of. Elsewhere, John is tasked with projects like creating a memory journal for Michael to read in the future — spiritually taxing undertakings he wants to avoid as long as possible.

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So, what kind of a future should John hope for his child when his own life is about the expire? What should he (what should anyone) prioritize: love, capability, financial security? How does one explain that choice to their offspring? Or better yet, how does one involve him in the decision? These are the weighty questions posed by writer-director Pasolini (who bears no relation to the legendary Pier Paolo, but is a descendant of the neorealist master Luchino Visconti). And he asks them through a lens both socially aware and emotionally layered.

In that, the filmmaker — who formerly produced the Oscar-nominated comedy “The Full Monty” and wrote and directed “Still Life” a decade ago — intertwines two rich tapestries. One reveals the social and economic realities of Northern Ireland as John meets and considers families and individuals from all walks of life with differing financial statuses, making the ideal household gradually clear to us and to John. The other quietly trails John’s internal journey as he increasingly gets confronted by what his illness means, as well as the inevitability of the conversation he needs to have with Michael. (Michael already seems somewhat aware of the reality of death. Why else would he be so attentively curious about a dead beetle in the park?)

“Nowhere Special” is the kind of confident, understated film that doesn’t need to pound the audience with its sentiments in order to make us feel alive and human in front of it. There are no great declarations about sickness or death here (even the death of Michael’s mom is mentioned in passing), or grand emotional explosions you’d expect from a lesser picture. Instead, Pasolini leans closer into his visual language to show (and not tell), constructing a world of mirrored images and subtle reflections that suggest fractures in characters, all challenged by notions like “what if” and “if only.”

Even costuming choices demonstrate Pasolini’s thoughtful eye for visuals in support of the film’s narrative textures. For instance, instead of burdening the young newcomer Lamont with mawkish dialogue lines, he telegraphs Michael’s innocence through a charmingly faded red baseball cap, placed awkwardly over the little one’s bowl cut and bangs, making him look both impossibly cute and vulnerable at once. One exception to the movie’s overall restraint is perhaps Andrew Simon McAllister’s lovely yet heavy-handedly sentimental score. Luckily, Pasolini doesn’t overuse it, mostly allowing the organic journey of the heartbreakingly burdened father and his troubled son speak for itself.

Much of that journey surely rests on the shoulders of the terrific Norton (“Happy Valley,” Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”) and Lamont, who jointly give heartrending performances as characters navigating an unbearable situation. Since actors as young as Lamont can only be only as good as the adults holding their hand, Norton and Pasolini both prove they know how to tap into a child performer’s capabilities with care and compassion. That care is what makes “Nowhere Special” a refreshing tearjerker, one that doesn’t manipulate, but lets audiences cry on their own terms when John finally makes the only right choice.

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