10/21/2011 07:26 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

Movie Review: Norman

In Norman, Norman (Dan Byrd) seems like a normal high-school kid: He's smarter than he probably knows, he feels like he's carrying world is on his shoulders, he's lovelorn and he's too nervous to make the move on a girl.

Oh yeah, and his mother died in a car accident recently and now his father (Richard Jenkins) is dying of cancer. Is it any wonder that Norman is considering suicide?

But he speaks before he acts in Jonathan Segal's sometimes funny, sometimes tragic film about a kid dealing with pressure. In this case, he kills himself figuratively: Asked what's bugging him on the day when his father has received a terminal diagnosis, Norman blurts, "I have cancer," and then can't quite bring himself to take it back.

The word spreads and everyone starts treating Norman differently. They're nice, more considerate, more compassionate - all of which he hasn't felt much of until now. But now he can't really appreciate this wave of good feeling because it comes with a catch: He's receiving it from people who think he's going to die.

So even as he deals with his father's worsening health, Norman is also building a romance with a new classmate, Emily (Emily Van Camp). But can a relationship grow when it's been planted with a lie at its root?

Segal creates a film suffused with feelings that seem to clash and yet which end up complementing each other. He doesn't go for soap operatics when he easily could, in the same way that he never aims for cheap laughs built on shock values.

The film, to be sure, isn't perfect. There's ultimately no way out of the corner into which Norman paints himself. But watching him try to figure that out is fulfilling in a lot of ways, thanks to the performance by Byrd in the title role; he embodies the mercurial moods of a kid caught up in some of the best and worst moments of his life at the same time. He's capably supported by Jenkins, who captures the sense of someone struggling to show his best side right up to the moment he no longer is physically able to.

Norman is a sleeper, a small film with nicely etched performances, assembled in a way that is consistently engaging and surprising. How many movies can you say that about?

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