Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie – Neverwas (2005)

One day Netflix recommended a movie to me that I had never heard of.  By itself this isn’t that strange, since there are probably thousands of movies I’ve never heard of.  What did make it strange was that it starred Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking), Ian McKellan (The Lord of the Rings), Brittany Murphy (Clueless), Nick Nolte (Warrior), Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), and William Hurt (Children of a Lesser God).  Together they’ve got a whole pile of Oscar nominations and wins, not to mention popular movies they have starred in.  As it turns out, after appearing at a couple of film festivals, Neverwas was put on the shelf for a couple of years then finally released straight to DVD.  It “never was” released to theaters.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist the obvious pun).  This is usually not a good sign, but I did end up liking the movie.  I have some ideas on why it sat for so long.

First, I did try to find an official answer to why it was never theatrically released.  All I ran across were some snotty comments from a few reviewers who were just working with the assumption that it was so bad that the studio tried to hide it.  Almost all of them also tried to describe it as “it’s X meets Y” where X and Y are two movies with a fantasy, fairy tale, or mental illness theme.  The fact that almost none of them named the same movies is what gives a hint to what I think really happened.  I believe the studio held it back for two main reasons:  1. It was not easily marketable precisely because it couldn’t be summed up in one sentence as “it’s X meets Y”; and 2. The market already had Finding Neverland (2004) and The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) coming out, and Neverwas was the one that was original, and therefore had no built in audience, so it was kept sitting until there was a less crowded market for fantasy-themed films.

What is this film about?  Zach Riley (Eckhart), a psychiatrist, resigns his post at a big city hospital and moves back to his home town.  He applies for a position at a nearby mental institution.  At first the man who runs the place (Hurt) doesn’t want to hire him because he figures this small, underfunded hospital is the last place a man of Zach’s talents would want to be.  Zach tells him that a friend of his had been a patient there and that Zach wants to give back by helping patients on a more personal scale.  We soon find out that this is only part of the truth.  In reality, it was Zach’s father (Nolte) who had been a patient there.  Had the administrator known this, he probably would not have hired him.  He didn’t make the connection because Zach has taken his mother’s maiden name to distance himself from his father.

The reason Zach is doing all of this is that his father committed suicide when Zach was a boy.  It was Zach who found the body.  This has affected him for his entire life and he is finally coming back home to try to find out what he can about his father in hopes of understanding both the man, and the mental illness he had.  There’s another reason Zach has distanced himself from his father: the father was the author of a very popular fantasy book titled Neverwas.  Its hero is a young boy named Zachary Small, who helps save the land of Neverwas and return its King to his throne.  The boy was obviously based on the real Zach.  Because of the events surrounding his father, Zach has never really acknowledged the book and his connection to it.

Soon after arriving home he runs into Maggie Paige (Murphy), a woman who he was friends with when they were children.  She is a huge fan of his father’s book and wants to interview him about it.  Zach wants nothing to do with this. 

He doesn’t get much respite, however, because one of the first patients he meets is Gabriel Finch (McKellan).  Gabriel somehow recognizes Zach, but he refers to him as “Zachary Small” – the name of the boy in his father’s book.  It turns out Gabriel has been in and out of this institution for decades and he knew Zach’s father.  He goes on to claim that he is the one that told the father about Neverwas because he (Gabriel) is actually the king who has lost his kingdom.  He says the last time he saw Zach was when he was a small boy and he helped Gabriel get his kingdom back.  Although a little thrown by all of this, Zach assumes the man must remember him from a time he visited his father as a boy, and that since he is a patient there he obviously has mental problems and he has fixated on this book.

Zach tries to dig up what he can on his father.  This includes talking to his mother (Lange), who is not very encouraging.  The more Zach finds out, the more that Gabriel’s little details start to look more like something an actual participant would know, not someone who simply read the book.  Zach enlists Maggie’s help in understanding both Gabriel and his father’s book better.  He starts to wonder if Gabriel’s stories might not have at least a little bit of truth in them.  For his part, Gabriel says that his enemy has cast a spell over Zach, which is why he doesn’t remember helping Gabriel win back his throne when Zach was a child.  Does this somehow tie in with the dreams Zach has about running away into the forest when he was little? 

We ultimately do find out how much of what Gabriel is relating is true, and Zach realizes that he needs to do what he came there to do – help people.  In this case it is Gabriel, but is it to help him deal with his mental illness, or is it to help him regain his kingdom of Neverwas once more?

The reason this is a “fairytale for adults”, and the reason why some people may not like it, are one and the same.  Some people believe fairytales are supposed to be whimsical and light, but this film is not.  It deals with the very real issues of mental illness, the trauma created by the suicide of a parent, and the moral and ethical boundaries surrounding a doctor and one of his patients.  As I said at the top, it’s not the kind of film that can be summed up in one sentence for a sales pitch.  The tagline for the film is “Every fairy tale needs its hero”, which is pretty generic.  It does fit the film, but it could fit any number of other films, too.

Eckhart and McKellan are the main characters in the film.  The others play smaller roles, so if you were thinking about seeing it for one of them, then Neverwas might not provide you with what you are looking for.  For what it’s worth, there are also some cameos among the patients (Alan Cumming, Vera Farmiga, Michael Moriarty, and Bill Bellamy).  Cumming does get to shine in his brief time on screen.

If you are looking for a fantasy movie with cgi and funny creatures, then this is not the film for you.  It’s also not for those looking for a simple storyline where everyone “lives happily ever after”, although I would say that the ending is far from sad.  “A little bittersweet” might be the best description.  I can see some people getting impatient with the pace of the film because they want to get to the part where we find out if it’s real or not.  For everyone else, though, if this movie sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.  You may end up liking it, too.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. Great review! I never saw the movie but I always wanted to - it has so many great actors in it, I can't imagine it not being at least decent.

  2. @Sati. - Thanks. As long as people don't get their expectations too high, I think they might like this film.

  3. I just watched it, and I enjoyed it. One would not feel as though he or she wasted their time on this film...there is a variety of things to like about it

    1. Chip, thanks for the accurate run-down, I only wish you could have reviewed it in 05. I would put in in the drama section for two reasons, pace and dialog. The only thing I disagree on is 5 stars instead of three, for the simple fact of the crazy casting combo of Eckhart, McKellan and Nolte! Neverwas should have been...

    2. I'm glad you really enjoyed it. I wish I had seen it back when it came out as well.

  4. This movie was very interesting. Looking at the cover, someone tried to market this story as a fantasy. It is not. It is truly a look at mental illness. One of the best I have seen. But, that subject does not hold the same appeal. Just like the illness so many times, it was shoved under the rug.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The thing is, the movie intentional leaves it ambiguous until the end and it is much better because of that.

  5. I found this gem of a movie in our public library & grabbed it because of Ian McLellan (Gandalf!) The twists of dire reality actually inspiring the children's book were exactly what rang true for me. Gabriel Finch survived by creating a world that needed him, that he made beautiful with his efforts. To be removed from it, imprisoned & judged as mentally ill, is the painful exile that Zach's father witnessed, understood, & captured in story form.

    The book, Neverwas, delighted those who read it... such a magical place! But the fiction turned out to be real, didn't it?

    How crazy then IS Gabriel Finch for declaring sovereignty over a place of his own making? Misunderstood, yes.
    A man apart, yes. Alne by choice but he had invited Zach's father in and the writer was moved & inspired by the beauty & power of the place just as Zach & Maggie were when they followed the clues & discovered the "imaginary world" was real.

    This movie so impressed me that I played it over a number of times for friends to view. Each time~ it triggered positive responses of hopefulness, acceptance, & delight in the strangeness of truths that may be at first dismissed.
    The "Darkness" does exist. It claimed Zach's father. Gabriel found his own way to battle the darkness of his childhood trauma. Zach's journey led him into psychology as a profession, then back to the institution in which his father was a patient, to a detective pursuit of a truth that Gabriel claimed.

    The movie, as I see it, touches each viewer personally. For those I shared it with... the conversations that followed & the opening up of personal stories were the lasting jewels we kept.

    Neverwas, a movie so inspiring!

  6. McKellan. Damn autocorrect got me.

  7. "Alone by choice" missed that "o"

  8. "Alone by choice" missed that "o"

  9. Enjoyed your review and agree with it.