Directed by Olia Oparina and written by Anya Bay who also stars in the film, a sane woman fakes the symptoms of a mentally unstable patient in order to be admitted into a mental institution for a secret psychiatric experiment. Starring: Nora-Jane Noone, Saul Rubinek, David Figlioli, Chopper Bernet, Malinda Farrington, Catherine O’Connor, Alexander Karavay and Susan Moore Harmon.
You can only imagine how many highly unethical and dangerous experiments have been conducted over the years; a number of them, not unlike the basis for this story, are endlessly studied in psychology classes across the world but there’s likely many more we’ve never heard of. Looking at it now, the sheer idea of accepting to take part in an experiment, stepping into a psychiatric hospital as a mentally healthy person, is clearly going to be detrimental to these poor volunteers. Taking into consideration that rather melodramatic situation, it’s hugely to the credit of Oparina and Bay that they avoided that pitfall and kept this story understated and focused.
Bay strikes a slow, purposeful and subtle tone with her writing, it doesn’t try to strike out with over-emphasised fits of mental instability, it gets across the severity of the situation through its atmosphere. It places Nora-Jane Noone’s naïve Keira in the centre and then interprets everything through her eyes, which connects the inhumanity and fragility in a sensitive manner, which is key with a story such as this, to not feel advantageous of mental health illnesses. It’s a story that harks back to fiction works like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or American Horror Story: Asylum but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely predictable. It has a few surprises in store, it’s cleverly understated and moves with a thoughtful pace.
Visually the first thing you notice is the very nostalgic and perfectly textured for the time period cinematography by Halyna Hutchins. It has a particular hue and almost filtered like quality to create a pastel heavy picture that’s inherently 1970’s in style. It never feels harsh or dark, it lives within a realm of drama, bringing forth a very human and at times, gentle perspective. It may have been interesting to see it take a darker tact with some of the story, to really push the emotions and strike more at the heart of the injustice and inhumanity. However, arguably exploring the story in that way would potentially require a lot more than 20-minutes.
Wildfire and Brooklyn star Nora-Jane Noone takes the lead here with her usual excellence in sincere, authentic emotional turmoil. She’s an incredibly underrated actress, the power and presence she can bring to roles is something special to watch, it may be in a smaller package here but she brings the same sympathetic and moving portrayal as with previous roles. Writer and producer Anya Bay takes on triple duty here, appearing as fellow patient Nancy. Bay brings a beguiling mysterious quality to her character, you satisfyingly can’t quite put your finger on who she is or what sort of person she is and that feeds well into the pacing and progression of the story. It’s also great to see the familiar faces of Saul Rubinek and David Figlioli, who have made memorable appearances across television and film, both managing to make an impression, no matter how brief the role.
I Am Normal takes an understated and effective style to tell a rather stark story in a gentle and pensive manner. Instead of trying to bring through melodramatics in its exploration of a mental health facility, like many others in the past have, it focuses on its lead to show a story of injustice through her eyes. Noone takes that lead effortlessly, she’s endlessly easy to watch and artful at bringing through emotion both subtly and powerfully. Having writer, producer Bay as her support adds a few extra layers of intrigue and an interesting dynamic between the two. Oparina’s directorial style dives head-first into the 1970s and creates a perfectly consistent tone and atmosphere to befit its period. It could have packed a bigger punch but this team feels like a well-oiled machine, moving smoothly and purposefully.