Norman (2020)

I’m speechless.

You never know, when you watch the latest Indie film, exactly what to expect.  Even if you’ve read the canned plot summaries and seen a few stills and the poster.  Every once in a while some incredible young filmmaker comes along and completely destroys your expectations, giving you the film you never would have expected.

This is one of those films where I’m reluctant to give away too much.  Not so much because I’m afraid of revealing its secrets but because the way it unfolds is so important to the story, and as the director, Joel Guelzo, leads us slowly into Norman’s world and the strange dilemma that has him caught firmly in its horns.  Joel is in no hurry, and gives us a wealth of visual signposts that all become important before we are done:  an apple with a bite out of it, an antique watch, a photo on an I.D.

Norman is a time traveler whose experiment has gone very wrong, and who is desperately trying to find some way to fix the mistakes he’s made.

If he had any idea what they were.

As I’ve said before, it is very hard to review a really good film.  Bad films almost review themselves — particularly if they are bad enough — while average films can be summed up with a few words.  But the good films are all good in their own unique and distinctive way.

So what can we say about Norman?

For starters, the film is flawless.  Polished.  Perfect.  Joel Guelzo worked seven years to put his vision on the screen and worked and worked to make everything turn out the way he wanted.  For example, it stunned me to learn that all the dialogue had been re-looped.  The original audio he recorded, before he really knew what he was doing, wasn’t good enough — a very common problem for independent film! — and, with the help of his brother, Jonah, he went back and re-recorded every line of dialogue.

Now, we see this all the time in the movies and rarely notice it.  But most people do not realize that sound is one of our richest senses, and it is harder to get the sound right for a film than it is to get the visuals right.  We can all hear it when someone gets it wrong — a drop in the background noise when a character speaks, say, or a thousand other instantly recognizable flaws.  But good sound design?  It goes unnoticed and just sounds…normal.

Again, another surprise was that Joel originally started out to make a short film — something he thought he could do in a few weekends, a film which would only have been a tiny slice of Norman (and  he even says he can’t remember exactly what it would have been!).  Instead, it turned into a seven year long epic effort to create a feature film.  This amazes me, as a writer, because his story is so beautifully constructed, with all the pieces doing something important, and the details spread throughout dovetailing beautifully together at the end and revealing far more than is ever actually said.

How did he do that with a film he’d already started filming? I’ve seen movies that changed their minds mid-production before (like Battlespace, just to mention one of the main offenders) and they usually feel like they’re all held together with duct tape, even when they had to re-shoot most of what they already had.

Or consider that for most of the film, Stephen Birge is the only actor onscreen: sometimes wordless, sometimes narrating and sometimes playing against the unseen voice of his A.I., ANI.  There is nothing harder to carry off than a drama with a single character or even two characters, and yet that is what we have here, with Stephen always interesting, always believable and making Norman’s rather recondite crisis dramatic and tense.  It’s a solid performance, and the film wouldn’t work without it.  

I have no idea how Joel found a local actor capable of putting his heart and soul into an unpaid production, one which took two years for principal photography and has called on Stephen many times since during Post.  Incredible

All I can say is, keep your eyes open for a chance to see this one.  It is as beautiful a time travel film as you are likely to see anytime soon.  I just hope that it will get an official release soon.

But I can’t help noting that Norman is yet another stunning Indie film which debuted in 2019, a year which produced a ridiculous number of truly great Indie films, of which the best by far were The Tangle, Prospect, Das Letzte Land, A Living Dog, Color Out of Space, Cosmos and now Norman.

I doubt if we’ll see another year like it anytime soon.

Particularly not if we have have to wait seven years for a film like Norman.

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And check out our new Feature (Updated May 16, 2019):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!

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