The Together! 2016 Disability History Month Festival in Newham featured a film festival as part of a four-week programme of disability arts. The showing of A Normal Life (2016) by US filmmaker Alex Herz on 10 December was the film’s UK premiere, falling on World Human Rights Day. Review by Stephen Portlock.
Even in a more benign political climate, it would be deplorably unlikely that the distributors of a low budget debut feature would fork out the extra money for an audio description track for gently humanistic American films, such as A Normal Life.
So credit then to Ju Gosling, director of Together! 2012’s Disability Film Festival, for enabling me as a blind person to fully appreciate this film. What her spontaneous live, on demand, audio description track lacked in professionalism, it more than made up for in determination to create access at the film festival.
Running at a tight 72 minutes, and based on the 19-year-old director’s lived experience, Alex Herz’s feature film debut focuses on the friendship between non-disabled Michael and his younger brother Nathan who has Downs syndrome. The film is an honest portrayal of the ramifications on their relationship and how the siblings conduct impacts on the lives of their parents.
We are first introduced to Nathan when he is being ticked off by his mother Laura for looking at pornography on his smart phone. While Michael is quick to come to Nathan’s defence, observing that this is commonplace conduct for 14-year-olds, Laura is unconvinced. Michael is about to leave home and go off to college and so he wishes to spend as much time as he can with his younger brother, indulging in activities such as walking the dogs and play wrestling.
Michael is convinced that Nathan should be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them. This, however, is not always made easy by the latter, whose headstrong conduct includes defiantly insisting on listening to his music at excessive volume levels.
This obstinacy comes to a head in a surprisingly tense scene when, away at the family holiday home, Nathan suddenly disappears without warning, causing his mother to call the police.
Part of what makes A Normal Life such a pleasant surprise is that Herz in many ways seeks to bring together the two siblings not on Michael’s but on Nathan’s terms. So, rather than surrounding Nathan with either disabled or non-disabled peers, the film instead acknowledges that experiences of social awkwardness are not restricted to disabled people.
Whilst we are briefly introduced to one of Nathan’s friends (they are sharing a giggle while watching the smart phone), Michael’s social sphere remains absent throughout the film.
While A Normal Life presents quite a narrow slice of life, what the characters lack in depth is more than made up for by the storytelling. Our emotional engagement only falters towards the end. Somehow the tearful climax feels faintly incongruous given the commendable absence of sentimentality and easy emotion throughout the rest of the film.
However, that does not stop A Normal Life from being a quietly powerful film debut, from a talented young director, and one that bodes well for the future.