Film Review: “Nowhere Special” — Searching for a Heart of Gold

By Tim Jackson

The relationship between the two leads keeps Nowhere Special grounded in what is the film’s moving core — a high-stakes love story between a father and a son.

Nowhere Special, directed by Umberto Pasolini. Screening at Landmark Kendall Square, Dedham Community Theatre, and Embassy Waltham

James Norton and Daniel Lamont in a scene from Nowhere Special.

Umberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special, the story of a terminally ill single father who is searching for a proper home for his four-year-old son, is buoyed by the chemistry between the two leads, James Norton as John and Daniel Lamont as his son, Michael. In Northern Ireland, John goes on a quest, questioning the various families offered by an adoption agency. Potential adoptees tell him why they think they would provide a suitable and loving environment. Michael sits off to the side — he has only a distant sense of the consequences. Making ends meet as a window washer, John’s work means nothing to him; his purpose in life has become to find a proper adoptive family. At this point, the grind of his job is wearing him down. He gazes through windows at the people going about their lives around him. At home, John calmly picks lice picked up at daycare from his boy’s head and quietly reads him bedtime stories. When Michael is asleep, John gobbles a handful of prescribed medicines.

John is not forthcoming in explaining to his son the reason for visiting all these families. Until Michael asks, “What’s adoption?” We learn little about why Michael’s mother abandoned them. “She left,” is all John says. His focus is on attending to his son and maintaining a semblance of normalcy in their interactions. He resists the dictates of the adoption agency, which offers guidance and monitors each visit to facilitate the adoption process and ensure that John is making the best decision. The sagest advice he gets comes from an elderly friend, and it seems to resonate: “My mother didn’t believe in all this dust to dust business. We are earth not air, she would say. And we’re always there. Our spirit, our energy is in the air.” The final word is delivered with a mellifluous Irish lilt.

Accompanied by a female agency representative, John visits families of diverse backgrounds who reveal the character and aspirations of those seeking to adopt a young child. For John, the stakes could not be higher. Speaking little, he quietly imagines if each home might be a potential fit that would honor his working-class roots. Norton’s performance can be found in his eyes; he says little. Exchanging subtle glances with his son, John watches how the couples interact. In households already with children, he assesses family dynamics. We, the audience, watch Michael watch the other children as they watch him — and John watches Michael.

In a sense, the agency representative is a stand-in for the viewers, taking stock of each situation. The first family strolls about their upper-class property promising the best for the boy. “He deserves a loving home and to do all the things I’ve never done,” John tells them. The couple promises Michael will receive a fine education in a life free from want. But that notion of well-off comfort sits uncomfortably with John. In the event of his passing they ask him what they should tell his son about who his father was. He pauses to consider the question: “Tell him I was a window washer.” That early response is revelatory. John does not want Michael to lose a sense of his roots, his class identity. Whether this is misplaced false pride is open to judgment. But the response resonates throughout Nowhere Special. John doesn’t want the family’s needs to be the bottom line. He’s waiting for evidence that there will be an emotional connection with the child. No situation will be perfect; an ideal match is an impossibility. We, the audience, have been judging the choices John has for ourselves. Not until the final moment will we understand the decision he makes.

The cast of sundry families does a fine job of imparting just enough information about who they are and why they wish another child. A culture that emphasizes family and community is a significant backdrop for the narrative. The Irish brogue provides the dialogue with a lovely musical undertone. These households may be “nowhere special,” but the family dynamics on display are universal. So, too, is the emotional connection between father and son. Ordinarily, a director might have to edit carefully to garner an effective performance from a four-year-old, but Pasolini uses the beauty of Lamont’s huge brown eyes and beatific innocence to full effect. His behavior is real, his kinship with Norton is genuine. The role of the laconic John is underwritten, but the relationship between the two leads keeps Nowhere Special grounded in what is the film’s moving core — a high-stakes love story between a father and a son.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter-skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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