Nowhere Special

In present-day Northern Ireland, John is a 33-year-old window washer with a four-year-old son Michael.  Unbeknownst to Michael, his father is dying of a terminal illness – cancer, we presume, although (like many details in Uberto Pasolini’s “Nowhere Special”) it’s never spelled out for us.  Through the help of an adoption agency, John sets out to find a new family to adopt Michael once he is orphaned.

Not a downer

I realize this must sound like a real downer as we head into the “happy, fun” season of summer blockbusters.  But trust me, it is not.  Don’t expect to shed a tear; but rather, be mesmerized with Pasolini’s sharp and incisive original screenplay, as well as some excellent acting by James Norton, who plays John, and newcomer Daniel Lamont as his son.  Lamont’s is the finest performance by a youngster since Jason Tremblay captivated audiences nine years ago in “Room.”  (I know, has it been that long?)

We don’t learn much backstory regarding Michael’s mother.  We learn she was Russian, and moved back to Russia shortly after Michael’s birth – without leaving any forwarding information for John.  Since then, John has been raising Michael solo.  We get the sense he has had no serious relationships, and has devoted his entire attention to the well-being of his young son.  The terminal illness news must have been devastating for John, but fortunately Pasolini’s screenplay begins after that tragic news has been absorbed.  In fact, much of the “emotion” of “Nowhere Special” takes place offscreen, which reduces the morbidity factor.  A television disease-of-the-week film this is not.  And therein lies its subtle strength.

Father-son bonding

The greatest sequences in “Nowhere Special” are those in which we experience the father-son bonding between John and Michael.  They don’t necessarily do anything special, but their love and devotion to one another is apparent.  They don’t take a vacation, but they play in the park, eat together, and read bedtime stories together.  Suffice to say their relationship is typical, but strong.

We’re never certain exactly how much Michael is aware of his father’s failing health, although he does accompany John – and a gal from the adoption agency, played by Irish actress Eileen O’Higgins — to a myriad of about a half dozen potential new families.  Only once do we experience John’s post-meeting “review” to the adoption agency – following a session with a particularly poor-match childless couple.

Selection process

The other families all have potential.  As “Nowhere Special” progresses, we become more invested in John’s selection process.  We see that any of these families might be a strong match, yet they each come with their own drawbacks.  In most cases, we have no way of knowing John’s gut reactions.  (Again, only once are we privy to his report to the adoption agency.)

Down time

But fortunately, Pasolini gives us plenty of “down time” following each family meeting.  These are the sequences in which we see John and Michael bond – and essentially do nothing special – while we imagine what must be going through John’s mind.  He’s processing the recent session, and so are we.  As a director, Pasolini trusts us to process the preceding scenes without a lot of force-fed dialogue or voice-over to spell out John’s innermost thoughts.

Best match?

As I watched the parade of potential family suitors, I was particularly drawn to the one which makes the least financial and economic sense.  Unlike many of these larger families who have years of experience with foster children and adoption, I was drawn to this one because of the vast potential to continue the loving and devotional bond John has created with his son.  While a wealthier family certainly has its built-in advantages, John lives paycheck-to-paycheck, and is closer to his son than many other fathers.  My “choice” of this family is not by accident.  I believe one of Pasolini’s goals is to turn the “ideal family” narrative on its head; to make us re-think what it takes comprise a loving family.  This is part of the subtle brilliance of “Nowhere Special.”

The title

And while some may be confused by the film’s title, I believe it begs its own discussion.  Most of John’s and Michael’s “together time” is, again, spent doing nothing special.  I also believe John seeks a new family that also spends quality “nothing” time with young Michael.  By the title, is Pasolini implying that John is going “nowhere special” when he dies?  That he will always be “with” Michael?  Perhaps.

Nowhere Special” is certainly a heavy film, but again, it’s not maudlin.  And it is not weepy.  Don’t discard this one because of its subject matter.  I know the year is young, but “Nowhere Special” is one of 2024’s treasures.






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