American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Norman" tells the story of a high school senior who finds too great a burden of challenges piling up all at once. His mother has died in a car crash. His father is dying of stomach cancer. This is all made known to us at the outset. The film will not be about these tragedies happening to him, but with how he deals with them. That's a worthy change from a more ordinary teen movie.
Norman (Dan Byrd) is quiet and private, with a way of hesitating before speaking as if he can barely find the will. His father, Doug (Richard Jenkins), is a doctor who understands his son's condition all too well. He also has made a decision to refuse one more round of chemotherapy and essentially supervise his own hospice care at home.
He and his son love each other, they argue only about his decision to end care, and Doug is painfully aware that he will be leaving behind an orphan. He treats Norman like an adult, inviting him to discuss with an attorney how he wants to live after his death, but Norman is unable to even listen to such questions.
Norman is smart, and therefore a loner in school. In his English class, he makes an ironic comment at a moment when no one else in the class can supply a definition of irony and is spotted for his intelligence by his English teacher (Adam Goldberg).
At tryouts for a drama club, Norman applauds an offbeat audition by Emily Parrish (Emily VanCamp), after they've earlier had an ancient classic Meet Cute (they collide in the hall, and he helps pick up her books, not awesomely original). She sweetly reveals that she likes him, and he confesses he's never been out on a date.