Nowhere Special offers a window into a dying father’s life

A terminally ill man, played by James Norton, spends poignant moments with his young son at the end of an unremarkable life, in Uberto Pasolini’s grounded drama.

14 July 2021

By Gabrielle Marceau

Daniel Lamont as Michael (left) and James Norton as John (right) in Nowhere Special
Sight and Sound

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Nowhere Special is in UK cinemas from 16 July.

Early in Uberto Pasolini’s understated drama, John (James Norton) is visiting a prospective adoptive family with his young son, Michael (Daniel Lamont). Out of earshot of the boy, the couple asks him what they should say about John when Michael asks. John pauses and says, almost apologetically: “Say I washed windows.”

John is terminally ill and has no family to take care of his son once he dies, so he must make the overwhelming decision of placing his son in a new family. Pasolini is treading similar terrain to his 2013 film Still Life, in which a man plans funerals for people who have passed away and have no next of kin. Both films ask what a legacy looks like for those who have lived unremarkable lives.

But John doesn’t want a legacy. He balks when the adoption agency asks him to leave Michael a memory box, hoping that Michael will forget him. John doesn’t deem himself – a working-class man who couldn’t make his wife happy and was abandoned by his father – worth remembering, but Pasolini shows that John has made a meaningful impact on the world around him. It is telling of his character that everyone he interacts with – from an auto mechanic to the agency workers to a fellow parent – is eager to support him.

Nowhere Special (2020)

John doesn’t openly express any anguish over his mortality; he seems resigned not only to the fact that his life will end but that he won’t live on in any form. But the character isn’t detached from us, because Pasolini gives us glimpses into his inner world. While washing windows, John will often pause over what he sees inside: a pregnant woman eating lunch at a cafe, a young boy in a Spider-Man costume, a boat being stored for the winter. He is looking in on the world of the living.

Pasolini’s less-is-more approach pays off in these quietly moving moments, but they aren’t all successful. Some images – when Michael loses the grip on his red balloon, and he and John watch it float away into the air – are a step away from maudlin. And it seems unrealistic that Michael would remain so quiet and wellbehaved during the emotionally stressful process (although it could be a trait he inherits from his father).

Overall, Nowhere Special feels grounded and genuine; the production design is detailed and true to life and the cinematography is unshowy, leaving ample room for Norton’s moving and understated performance.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Sofia Coppola on Priscilla and toppling the king Emma Seligman on Bottoms – David Fincher on The Killer – Todd Haynes on May December – Justine Triet on Anatomy of a Fall – tributes to Horace Ové and Terence Davies – Joanna Hogg interviewed

Get your copy

Other things to explore

From the Sight and Sound archive

‘Horrifyingly graphic’ Saving Private Ryan reviewed in 1998

By John Wrathall

‘Horrifyingly graphic’ Saving Private Ryan reviewed in 1998

Femme: a modern erotic thriller with looks to kill

By Simran Hans

Femme: a modern erotic thriller with looks to kill

Fallen Leaves second look review: a return to the small, ordinary beauty of Kaurismäkiland

By Philip Concannon

Fallen Leaves second look review: a return to the small, ordinary beauty of Kaurismäkiland