June 15, 2008
Ever since the adaptation to film of the "Harry Potter" book series, and most importantly, of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "The Lord of Rings" trilogy, the fantasy genre has experienced a very well deserved rise in popularity and a come back to the silver screen. The fact that modern special effects technology allows to make those fantasy worlds to come alive with greater ease and more realism than in the past is definitely another reason for this return to the spotlight, which has resulted in many fantasy films being released on cinema, video and television. Some of those films have been very good or have enjoyed great success, while others have been complete disasters (2006's "Eragon" for example), but in general the genre has proved to be back in form and ready to rumble. Considering that, it would be easy to assume that Joshua Michael Stern's "Neverwas" is one more of the countless fantasy films released these days, but even when the fantasy genre plays a big role in this modest film, "Neverwas" is a lot more than that.
"Neverwas" is the story of Zach Riley (Aaron Eckhart) a promising psychiatrist who decides to leave his academic career and return to his hometown, in order to work at the institution where his deceased father, T.L. Pierson (Nick Nolte), lived years ago. Pierson was a famous novelist, creator of the extremely popular fantasy book series "Neverwas", a children's book about a magical land of the same name. However, due to his mental problems, Pierson's relationship with Zach wasn't really the best. To Zach, working in the institution is something very personal to him, as he tries to understand his father and his problems, however, nothing will prepare him for his meeting with Gabriel Finch (Ian McKellen), a schizophrenic old man who truly believes that he comes from "Neverwas", that he is the rightful king of the land, and that Zach is the only one able to help him return to his kingdom. Finch's insanity touches a nerve in Zach, as he begins to wonder what truth is hidden in this fantasy.
Written by director Joshua Michael Stern, "Neverwas" is a movie that basically tells a story that's been told a lot of times (a man coming to terms with the memory of his late father), but at the same time is the story of a man discovering fantasy again through the eyes of someone who seems to live it every second of his life. In his story, Stern takes this two main subjects and using fantasy literature as the background he creates a moving tale that seems to give an odd spin to the fantasy genre, as while in many fantasy stories, children enter magical fantasy worlds (real or not) to escape from the horrors of real life, the main character in "Neverwas" is a grown up man who has been escaping from fantasy as a whole as he considers it to be closely linked to his father and his world. Stern handles the mystery of his story in a great way, as like Zach, one keeps the whole movie wondering if the world of Neverwas that the quixotic eyes of Gabriel Finch see is real or not.
In this his debut as a director, Joshua Michael Stern has created a charming tale of discovery that while not exactly a revelation or a landmark in film-making, is simply a nicely done drama that pulls all the right strings without misses a note. While Stern's visual style is young, kind of typical and still heavily influenced by TV movies (where his career as a writer started), there's a lot of creativity in the creation of the film's visual design, as with the great aid of cinematographer Michael Grady, Stern reflects in his movie the blurry and subtle line between dramatic realism and magical fantasy that his story handles. Philip Glass's score is another element that adds power to this mix, as Stern gives good use to it through the film. Despite dealing with fantasy elements, "Neverwas" is first and foremost, a character study, so director Stern lets his cast to become the main focus of the film, apparently aware that the real strength of the story is in the plot and the characters.
And that makes the performances of the cast of big importance, as a great deal of the weight of the film is over their backs. As Zach Riley, Aaron Eckhart is quite good and manages to carry the film well, although sadly he is often overshadowed by his cast-mates, particularly Ian McKellen and a surprising Brittany Murphy. Sir Ian McKellen completely steals the show as Gabriel Finch, a man who may or may not be completely delusional, as he makes quite a tender performance out of his character. As Maggie Blake, Brittany Murphy is remarkably well, and as written above, tends to overshadow Eckhart despite not being the main character of the film. Refreshingly, she makes believable and natural what could had been an unidimensional role. As Zach's father, Nick Nolte has a brief but substantial role in the film, although nothing really impressive. On the other hand, Jessica Lange and William Hurt have very small roles but they showcase their talents effectively in them.
For some reason, "Neverwas" didn't receive a proper theatrical release, ending as a straight to DVD film in what's probably another case of bad merchandising. Anyways, while this is not exactly a masterpiece of film-making, this little gem is quite an interesting take on the fantasy genre. Contrary to what its poster may suggest, "Neverwas" is not a fantasy film in the vein of "Harry Potter", but a fantasy about those who create fantasies. To expect the opposite is probably the best way to be disappointed with it, and that kind of expectation is definitely the film's worst enemy. With more experience, filmmaker Joshua Michael Stern may have had better results but considering his limitations, "Neverwas" is a very good way to start a career. Granted, he falls on many of the typical melodramatic clichés of the this kind of story, and a couple of times the story gets a bit too far fetched for its own right, but overall "Neverwas" is a fine film that definitely deserved better than what it got.
While not technically a typical fantasy film, "Neverwas" is definitely an excellent film for fans of the genre, as it explores the worlds of those who craft the fantasy stories we love to read and experience on film. In a way, this story has been told many times in the past, but "Neverwas" manages to feel fresh and even original at telling it. It may not be the most amazing movie of its kind, but it's a charming hidden treasure that definitely delivers a great story and nicely serves to have a good time. Hopefully, director Joshua Michael Stern will have better luck in his future projects and more will be seen coming from his side because if "Neverwas" is any indication of where he's going, it seems that there's work to do, but there's also the talent to do it.
Buy "Neverwas" (2005)