John is a window cleaner. Every day he cleans the outside of properties that he could never afford to live in and stares in at stuff that he could never afford to buy. He has tattoos on his neck and arms, a soft Northern Irish accent and never seems to complain.
He is also a single parent. When his son, Michael, asks what happened to mum, John explains that she went a long, long away. So far, this hasn’t been a big problem – father and son spend most of their time in each others’ company, and despite the occasional strop, they get on well together. But this harmony can’t last. John has a fatal disease, and its only a matter of time before he dies.
Much of the film shows us the pair visiting possible adoptive parents. They all seem pleasant enough, and certainly have the money to offer Michael things that John never had when he was a kid. And yet there’s something just not quite right about any of them. When one talks of sending Michael to private school, John winces.
You get the feeling that they see adoption as virtue signalling or a new child as a lifestyle accessory. They give Michael a cuddly toy to play with, but when John and Michael are about to leave, they ask for it back. You worry – and John worries with us – for Michael’s future.
The depiction of middle class potential parents as being potentially damaging is done with no stereotyping, and no over the top performances a la Candice-Marie in Nuts in May. These people are not horrors, and they certainly seem to be well meaning. And yet somehow they’re not quite right. And as John starts to come to terms with his own mortality, this is not something that he’s prepared to risk.
Meanwhile there’s the problem of explaining to Michael what is about to happen. Michael is three or four. He can’t really understand why he doesn’t have a mother at home. To expect him to come to terms with the imminent demise of his father his a big ask. John is offered a book which uses dinosaurs to explain the death of a loved one. Thanks for that, social services.
Michael’s presence at the scenes of John visiting potential adopters makes the visits all the more teeth grinding. The moppet gazes on as people who show little obvious affinity explain how they intend to look after him. Michael doesn’t really understand what is going on, but you can still sense disappointment in his eyes.
Nowhere Special had such potential to be cloyingly sentimental. It could have very easily been thoroughly manipulative. And yet, by and large, you can watch it and feel sad without feeling dirty about it. The film starts after John has his diagnosis and finishes before his death. There are no tragic hospital scenes, just people coping with impossible grief in the best way possible.
The film isn’t perfect by any means. Almost by its nature, it is very slow. As the story is, essentially, watching a man gradually lose his faculties, nothing much happens (while everything is happening). Part of me was saying “ok, got that, can we move onto the next scene now, please?” I don’t feel good about myself for having these instincts.
Also, I wonder if the film was trying to make too much capital by John being a single father. Should we assume that a father who is bringing up a child on his own is a much more tragic figure than a mother in the same position? Do we just assume that single mothers have a shitty life, which means that putting a man in this situation makes it automatically more dramatic? Maybe, maybe not, but this did make me feel slightly uncomfortable.
Whatever. Where Nowhere Special does particularly well is in the little things. There is a scene in which John watches pensively as Michael tries to walk along a line drawn on the ground. John calls on Michael to be careful. Quite a bit later, John tries to walk down the white dashed line in the middle of the road and is only partially successful.
This is a film about grief, about families, but also a film about class inequality. It is the opposite of didactic – it shows us a story and allows us to draw our own conclusions. There aren’t many car chases, but as long as you go to see it in the right mood, there’s plenty here to move you.