Normal Life

Director: John McNaughton
Screenwriters: Peg Haller, Bob Schneider

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival


It’s not unusual in American culture or fiction to adopt a midwestern town as the locale in which to portray the so-called archetypical American family or couple. The heartland is presumed to be a bastion that has retained its morality, an appropriate sense of values and sensibilities, and a normal lifestyle against the incursions that have shredded civilized life elsewhere. And it’s also in this environment that the irony of the lives that director John McNaughton chronicles in his film Normal Life becomes most evident.

Chris and Pam are hardly mundane people, although appearances may lead us to believe otherwise. Chris (Luke Perry) is a rookie cop on the police force of a small town in Illinois. A stickler for detail and propriety, his very desire to be a perfect policeman undercuts him in a world where it’s absolutely necessary for one to back up a fellow officer as the first priority. Pam (Ashley Judd) is a beautiful, straight-looking high-tech worker, if a little overemotional. But from the time these two meet and bond with each other, their relationship is an explosive, inseparable match of lost souls. It doesn’t take much time to discover that Pam isn’t exactly all together. Indeed the maelstrom of energy that she emits completely envelops Chris and anyone else who comes into her chaotic world. Watching their relationship is like witnessing a train wreck. It’s clear that disaster is coming but impossible to turn away from it, and it’s absolutely fascinating to observe.

Wonderfully composed and guided by McNaughton, Normal Life is fueled by these two superb performances. Judd ’s manic, at times depressive, and even delusional Pam is an amalgam of social malevolence, quirky self-indulgence, and obsessive destruction. Caught in the flow is Perry’s Chris, who can only hope to ride the whirlwind as he vainly seeks solutions to the ever-growing problems that beset them in this restrained drama. This is a marvelous exposition on the American dream: finding a mate, opening a business, buying a nice suburban home, paying your debts. But the dream has become perverted and twisted in this enthralling portrayal of the contradictions and consequences of the pursuit of happiness. Both thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining, Normal Life is terrific filmmaking from any point of view.

— Geoffrey Gilmore

Screening Details

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