Dir. Carl Bessai. Canada . 2007. 100 min.
With Normal , Canadian filmmaker Carl Bessai delivers his most accomplished film yet. An intense psychological portrait of lives shattered by a sudden death, it does everything well. Although it explores familiar terrain - comparisons with the daisy-chain of Paul Haggis' Crash are unavoidable - Bessai and co-screenwriter Travis McDonald have focused on fewer personalities and a single unsensational incident and go deeper, beyond the easy shock of coincidence. Forty-one per cent of North American motor vehicle fatalities are caused by drunk driving: Bessai and McDonald explore the impact of just one.
Whereas most Canadian films struggle south of the border, Normal, a world premiere at Toronto, has a better chance of landing a US distribution deal because its all-Canadian cast is headlined by studio-friendly faces, including The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss, Kevin Zegers, who played the son to Felicity Hoffman's transgendered dad in Transamerica and next appears in Damian Harris' thriller Gardens Of The Night, and indie stalwart Callum Keith Rennie.
Normal is no crowd pleaser but an unflinching social drama, and positive critical reaction will be key. An invitation to Sundance would certainly help too.
The film's secondary characters are fully realised, providing the solid basis for three powerful lead performances. Each does a brilliant job of oscillating between vulnerability and cruelty, and never let the audience relax into a fixed view of the person as good or bad.
The strength of the film lies in its judicious servings of plot. When we meet her, Catherine (Moss) could pass for just another stressed-out upper-middle-class soccer mom -- the fabulous Vancouver home, the designer kitchen, the indifferent husband, the sullen teenage son -- except her older son is dead.
Across town, Walt (Rennie) is an English professor and an indifferent husband in his own right. He gets mixed up with a mature student, the weather girl on the local TV newscast (Smith).
Jordie (Zegers) is in juvenile detention - a spoiled rich kid who took a car for a joy ride.
Then the pieces start to click into place. Catherine's son was the victim of a drunk-driving incident. We never see him alive but Moss' performance gives the lost teen a ghostly presence. We see her in his room, a shrine to his triumphs on the basketball court. Even when she finds a gun hidden in his room, the state of denial is so strong she simply puts it back where it was and never mentions it again. Meanwhile, her living son is a ghost in his own right, stuck between parents who are no longer connecting, severed from and jealous of his dead brother.
Walt is a failed writer. He drinks too much and spends less time than he knows he should with his autistic brother (Runyan). His tense relationship with his wife is nicely condensed in two scenes, one of them viewed silently through the window of her art gallery. The thrill of bedding the perky weathergirl merely reawakens Walt's conscience about an incident from his past.
After a year in detention, Jordie is back living with his 50-something father (Riley) in his mansion along with dad's trophy wife (Sullivan), a beauty in her mid-20s who desperately wants to connect with Jordie. He rebuffs her at every turn. Until he grasps her ulterior motive.
More pieces click, and click faster. Bessai doesn't press the accelerator, or crank up the score to heighten emotional points. He lets the characters box themselves into their respective traps - Catherine's anger, Walt's guilt, Jordie's Oedipal conflict with his father - until they have no choice but to face the inevitable fight. The revelation of just how connected they are comes with the intensity of a car crash.
Raven West Films
Mongrel Media (Canada)
Callum Keith Rennie
Lauren Lee Smith