Who cares what normal is?

HBO has two films here at Sundance. There's American Splendor, and this film, Normal. HBO's films are always high in production qualities, and usually on pretty interesting topics as well. Normal is no exception, centering on a family that has seemed "normal" for a long time, but one critical change leaves them questioning what "normal" is.

That change? Roy (Tom Wilkinson), husband and father in a rural town, announces to his wife after their 25th anniversary that he's been trapped in a man's body and wants to become a woman. His wife Irma (Jessica Lange) is immediately taken aback and kicks him out of the house. Roy explores his feminine side to the end of the film, slowly expanding the number of people who know. He is finally acknowledging his true feelings, and is better for it, though he suffers with everyone else the effects it has in his community.

Roy and Irma's daughter, Patty Ann, is all for it, being a bit of tomboy herself - Irma doesn't let her wear boyish things to school, and there is some real conflict there. Their son, grown up and touring as a roadie, has more of a problem when he finally returns home. There are problems at work for Roy, and also in their church, as Roy tries to join the sopranos (how ironic for an HBO produced film).

The subject material is fairly serious, but there is a wide swath of humor throughout the film, leaving no scene untouched. It's not even possible to separate the two sides of the film. Looking at Wilkinson as a woman really embodies both sides of this - he's hard to take seriously, and would only barely pass, but at the same time we can tell he's trying very hard, and it's important to the character, and that's partly how we know it's so tough on him. These two sides to the movie are irreversibly married to each other here, and they manage to reinforce, rather than detract from, each other.

Wilkinson has a tough role, but gets off more easily as we focus mostly on the havoc around him. Jessica Lange has another fabulous performance, and finds a lot of detail in an already complicated character. Even young Hayden Panettiere steals a few scenes as Patty Ann.

HBO is starting to release some of their films into theaters, starting with last year's Real Women Have Curves. I'm not sure how they calculate the worthiness of a project for such treatment, and perhaps Normal doesn't quite have the broadest of appeal, but I think a lot of people would enjoy it, and would personally love to see this kind of material make it to the theaters.

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