From a guy’s perspective, even the most awkward dates can’t compare to the embarrassment of puberty. Letting a conversation dwindle over steak, mashed potatoes and a pint or being scared to talk altogether knowing that at any time your voice might betray you and transform into an indistinguishable chicken squawk? I’ll make like a bug and stay silent, thanks. And then there’s the freaky growth spurts, hair under the armpits and in the body’s nether regions, and of course the sudden interest in romance and the naughty little dreams that come along with it. The Nature of Nicholas documents and mimics these awkward times as the title character Jeff Sutton begins his journey toward manhood.
Nicholas has been raised a prairie lad, complete with overalls and expansive wheat field for a backyard. Nicholas’ father is gone, either run away or lost in the War – it’s never made clear. Regardless, Nicholas lives with his mother and lacks the important father figure to help him through the transitional pubescent years. The young boy seems haunted by this, as he has frequent nightmares and daydreams in which his father is the central figure.
The Nature of Nicholas takes place in the summer between elementary and junior high. Bobby (David Turnbull) shows Nicholas that there’s more to life than hanging around in the wheat field. There are girls and pomade and necking. But Nicholas is into even more personal exploration. His hobby is dissecting bugs to gain a greater understanding of how they work. Like a moth transforms into a beautiful butterfly, Nicholas is going to eventually become a man. Without a father around to answer questions, he’s got to be inquisitive and figure out what he can for himself. One day he leans over and plants a peck on Bobby’s lips. Needless to say it’s an awkward moment and has even more dire consequences. Bobby shows up at Nicholas’ a couple of days later sick. Nicholas takes him in, but as the days go on, Bobby continues to get sicker and sicker to the point where he’s a wheezing lizard boy living in the shed.
The Nature of Nicholas is a complex coming-of-age story chalk full of poetic symbolism and head scratching twists that challenge dream versus reality. Take the events literally and you’re going to get frustrated. It won’t make sense. But just as puberty is a chaotic time for emerging kids, the things that don’t make sense usually make perfect sense. Fair or not, Nicholas is a boy who has been raised by guilt and sorrow. While the film doesn’t show where the rift between Nicholas and his mother began, it’s obvious it does exist. As a result, Nicholas is uncomfortable around people. A smallish boy, he’s not only behind the rest of the class in size, but in social skills as well. So when he kisses Bobby, Nicholas’ guilt manifests into in the sickly monster. Set in the 1950s, hints of homosexuality were something that was rarely spoken of.
Winnipeg director Jeff Erbach does a beautiful job of capturing prairie isolation. Farms, golden wheat fields, ocean blue skies – the exterior scenery looks like something out of a promotional travel video. Nicholas’ neighbors live beyond the horizon making his loneliness not only figurative, but literal as well.
Many will become frustrated with the movie’s narrative leaps. Call it confusing, call it imaginative, call it a challenge – this isn’t your typical multiplex fodder where the discovery of youth is often relegated to cheap jokes involving bodily fluids, sex and apple pie. The Nature of Nicholas takes a more in-your-face approach where the transformation into adulthood is looked at with a combination of fear, curiosity and confusion.