'Nowhere Special' Wasn't Special Enough to Get Anywhere

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John sit together on a bench in 'Nowhere Special'

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John in 'Nowhere Special'

Cohen Media Group

Nowhere Special has clearly fallen through the cracks of international distribution. It premiered three and a half years ago, in September 2020, at the same reduced-programming Venice Film Festival as Nomadland, which would go on to win Best Picture two years before Nowhere Special reached (in a limited release) American audiences. It’s been a chaotic few years for the indie exhibition scene, and Nowhere Special’s delayed release is, well, nothing special – much better films have faced more tortured distribution problems over the years.

The film could be described as a pre-adoption drama, as a Northern Irish window cleaner and single father, John (James Norton), navigates the difficulties of finding a suitable and loving home for his young son Michael (Daniel Lamont) ahead of passing away from a terminal illness. An indie film, especially one with a head-turning premise about social services, is usually helped by building momentum across other festivals and local buzz when released domestically; Nowhere Special reached the U.K. and Ireland in the summer of 2021 and was crowned with only a British Independent Film Award nomination for Norton, a London Critics Circle Award nomination for its young Irish star Lamont, and a win at the Royal Television Society Northern Ireland awards for composer Andrew Simon McAllister.

Even these plaudits feel more of a courtesy than spotlighting standout talent in a crowded, confused indie market. Nowhere Special hits all the marks of a satisfactory domestic drama, playing its big emotions in a way that could be charitably read as graceful and subdued, but in reality, it just feels careful and unambitious. The performances are understated, and the emotions lie just beneath the surface, just as they should be in an indie family drama. But for a story interested in how systems of care struggle to accommodate the messiness of a father-child relationship or how both parties are asked to bear grief without knowing what shape it will take, everything feels too neat, too clearly telegraphed, too orderly, a fault that’s not just present in the story, but the filmmaking too.

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John celebrate a birth with cake in 'Nowhere Special'

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John in 'Nowhere Special'

Cohen Media Group

Writer-director Uberto Pasolini, nephew of the legendary Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti and an actual Italian count himself, has spent his whole career interested in socio-political stories, no matter how serious-minded or purely entertaining they promise to be. He first worked as a location scout for films like The Killing Fields and The Mission before producing the British working-class comedy The Full Monty, which was a landmark crowd-pleasing hit that got Pasolini nominated for Best Picture Oscar.

Nowhere Special marks his third directorial effort and has made the most negligible impact – Machan focused on athletic slum residents in Sri Lanka and made marks in international festival circuits, and his British set Still Life won him a directing prize at 2013’s Venice Festival. It’s difficult to parse a unique style from Nowhere Special alone; the camera largely favors John’s perspective watching Michael play with toys, letting us infer John’s unspoken fears on his son’s behalf. Often, Pasolini frames John in offices, hallways, and living rooms to express how ill-fit the adoption process is for reducing the pain of his passing.

Pasolini is clearly most interested in performances, but aside from our central pair – Norton’s Irish-accented frustration comes through commendably, and his chemistry with Lamont is touching and convincing – no character is allowed to transcend their status as one-note archetypes. Social worker Shona (Eileen O’Higgins) and elderly caregiver Deirdre (Carol Moore) take up the most space in the peripheries of John’s life, but their insights on social services, parenting, and religion come up short, feeling more like talking points that push John to reflect in his own time.

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John saying prayers before bedtime in 'Nowhere Special'

Daniel Lamont as Michael and James Norton as John in 'Nowhere Special'

Cohen Media Group

Much of Nowhere Special focuses on John and Michael having supervised meetings with prospective parents. While there’s an authentic variety in the class divisions across the spectrum of potential mums and dads, they’re telegraphed in such a blunt and simplistic way (often featuring Shona reacting to a faux pas by wincing at John) that not only is it extremely obvious which one will be the appropriate new home for Michael, the nuances of what’s driving John’s confliction over making a decision are flattened.

Elsewhere, Pasolini gets nowhere with simplistic symbolism: John retaliates against a rude customer by egging his windows and smiling while staring at a nearby cemetery. The depth of feeling connecting these actions is so immediately and completely understood that it undermines how jagged and thorny John’s psychological crisis really is.

Nowhere Special satisfies the most necessary narrative desires that you get from hearing its premise but does them in such an uncomplex manner, rarely showing interest in delivering something more substantive. It’s easy to see why the drama struggled to hit stateside audiences for so long – it’s tricky to muster much enthusiasm about Pasolini’s efforts here. For a story that touches on so many blindspots and obstacles to family bonding and healing, the director should have embraced the challenging complications more.

Nowhere Special opens in limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Friday, April 26, 2024, and will eventually stream on Peacock.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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