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Other // R // October 7, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 2, 2008 | E-mail the Author

The Film:

As you can probably guess, Normal is anything but normal. It takes the stage as 2007's attempt at a Crash-style network of interconnected individuals, all with mangled pasts and questionable reactions that build to a conglomerated volcanic eruption at its zenith for emotional punch. But where Crash succeeds -- along with the work of Alfonso Gonzales Inarritu's body of work, which reflects the kind of rhythm they're going for here -- Normal tries so hard to be a message film with powerful performances that it forgets to convey one key element: a tangible message. "Life goes on" can only get you so far; that singular expression of determination to live past the accidents of this world still leaks through with showcased performances from Carl Bessai's finely-directed cast.

Normal connects a stark range of characters connected by a tragic car accident that altered all their lives. In one spectrum, there's a mangled family -- with Carrie-Anne Moss (the Matrix) playing the anguished mother Catherine -- that can't seem to recover their peaceful routine. In another, a mentally-plagued ex-alcoholic college professor (Callum Keith Rennie, Memento) tries to break his autistic brother's fear of leaving the house while struggling with his crumbling marriage. Finally, there's Jordie (Kevin Zegers, Dawn of the Dead remake), a rebellious juvie release living with his psychiatrist father and attractive younger stepmother (Camille Sullivan). Between all three of these broken family dynamics, they can't seem to force through those barriers that would allow them to heal and reconnect with society to a commonplace capacity.

The phrase "it's a small, screwed-up world" kept echoing in my head as I soaked in the far-fetched connections between all three of the families. Paul Haggis pushes this mechanic excruciatingly hard in his Academy-award winning picture, which seems much less agreeable to this constrained proximity in Normal. Bessai attempts to create a similar interwoven effectiveness, which becomes a pure challenge in constraining doubt and cynicism instead of succeeding as evocative filmmaking. He makes the best of this leap-of-faith script by rustling together authentic personalities out of each and every one of his actors, but the level of doubtfulness clouds his efforts at character-audience connection.

Instead, it becomes an abrasive deconstruction involving a horde of royally convoluted individuals, one that only aims to unsettle with its envelop-pushing instead of aiming for sincere effectiveness -- along with being a cinematic storyline so driven to invoke feelings that it causes a bit of the "slippery soap" effect. As much as it tries to wrap its mitts around emotionality, Normal squeezes too hard and lets its audience slip quickly from its grasp. This lack of connectivity was touch-and-go from the start, but one scene in particular -- a bit involving a dynamic-shifting encounter between Jordie and his stepmother, along with its following domino effects -- sent my disdain for its aggressive ploys at emotion-based tension into overdrive. Aggressiveness on emotive thresholds can be welcome, but the problem here lies in the empty messages revolving around coping with grief that the film offers with its dramatic lashing.

Stunning actress Camille Sullivan's reactionary, despondent performance as the housewife, along with the rest of Normal's host of character portrayals, fights to redeem some strength for the film amid all its erratic themes and skewed grasps on reality. Especially potent are Carrie-Anne Moss and Callum Keith Rennie, who deliver in a powerful, pensive fashion that adds energy and dimensionality to seemingly one-sided characters. They fight with their respective demons on-screen, which boil up to be the scattered saving moments for Normal; yet, there's still that lingering sensation that you're watching a film that's merely a step up from soap-opera situational drama, one with much more bark than bite. Babel or Crash it's not, but at least Bessai's direction and the core talent around its ideas take it within a few lilypad-leaps from the same spectrum.

The DVD:

Ocean Park Media presents Normal in a standard keepcase presentation, featuring coverart and menus that share a simplistic, elegant design.

The Video:

As with many films harboring similar thematic qualities, Normal focuses a lot of close-quartered facial shots and set design to emphasize the highly-personal mood. Mongrel Media's 1.78:1 transfer captures the essence of its beauty with few deterrents. Blocking can be seen against flesh tones and in larger patches of color in backdrops, yet the detail work and minimal edge enhancement manage to fight back against this problem. Color saturation is quite good at times, if only rendering orange skintones in a few scenes. Mostly it's a muted transfer with intricate work in color saturation, which happens to help the transfer shine.

The Audio:

Two options are available, in English 5.1 and English 2.0, which both sound fairly similar. It's clearly a dialogue-driven film, but there's a lot of discreet effects that accentuate Normal's nuance -- such as the rustling of towel fabric, the Crashing of a plate, and the rapping of a fire. The 5.1 option gives a little more expansive breath, but both experiences hold close to the same properties. No subtitle options are available.

The Extras:

Only a Trailer for Normal is available.


Final Thoughts:

Normal is a chaotic character drama that didn't sell me on what it was trying to accomplish -- but the performances and the way the emotional scenes were structures still offered strong experiences. Carrie-Anne Moss and Callum Keith Rennie both deliver superb outings, though, as does supportive powerhouse Camille Sullivan. It's worth a Rental for these performances and for the one-note concentration on coping with the trauma of grief, but its singularl dimensionality neglects to properly support all the familial drama busting about during Bessai's film.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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