I approached with great interest writer/director Ryan Spahn's indie drama Nora Highland, an adaptation of Spahn's own stage script and a film shot entirely virtually at the height of the pandemic. As someone who has seen quite a few similarly shot films resulting out of the pandemic, Nora Highland is one of the few where the approach never feels like a gimmick. In fact, while such an appropriate may have been triggered by the pandemic it's an approach that likely makes the film even more of a dazzler.
As someone with significant disabilities, I'm a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, I have also long existed somewhat on the fringes of the arts scene. Acting and writing saved my life, quite literally, and it was largely my fellow creatives who pulled me out of intense early-life traumas and a weird relationship with my physicality to show me how to express it all through occasionally acting, frequently writing, rarely directing, and most recently even producing in film, stage, music, and other arts. So, as I watched Spahn's remarkably insightful Nora Highland I couldn't help but also reflect on the inherent ableism of arts institutions and the myriad of actors who have played "disabled" to the point of awards glory and greater fame while truly gifted disabled actors languish on the sidelines. There are exceptions, of course, most recently being Troy Kotsur's masterful performance in CODA alongside now companion Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin.
Just last year, Jim LeBrecht, a respected Hollywood sound guy with spina bifida, picked up the Academy Award for co-directing the feature doc Crip Camp.
However, more often than not when we think about actors playing disabled we think about Christian Bale (My Left Foot), Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Audrey Hepburn (Wait Until Dark), Joanne Woodward (The Faces of Eve), and a myriad of others. Over 59 performances by non-disabled actors playing disability have been nominated for or won an Academy Award, a statistic not far removed from the statistic that opens Spahn's Nora Highland.
Don't worry. I didn't lose my place. I remember I'm here to review Nora Highland.
What can I say? Spahn tapped into my own anger.
I am also angry, for the record, that an estimated 50+ cisgender/straight actors have been recognized for their portrayals of LGBTQ character while only a single performance, that of Ian McKellen, has been recognized when an actual out actor portrayed a character who is also LGBTQ.
This basic fact is at the heart of the 65-minute feature film Nora Highland, a film that centers around the upcoming Broadway revival of a seminal gay play. Nora Highland explores an industry that is still heavily biased against members of the LGBTQ community. It's a bias that expresses itself in a myriad of ways, from corporate interests to faux value statements to cultural stereotypes and more. Nora Highland unfolds in three particular scenes - the book-ending scenes adding some levity while never letting go of the film's messaging and the film's central scene being the stuff that film careers should be made of.
Nora Highland opens with a scene that is both cringe-inducing yet lightly humorous as a casting director (Mallory Portnoy) meets with the auditioning Sam (Eric Patrick Harper). It's a meeting that appears more than a little ill-conceived from the start as the casting agent has equipment issues, office issues, subordinate issues and, well, let's face it - this casting agent has issues. That's unfortunate for the otherwise good-spirited Sam because the moment Sam reveals that he is, in fact gay (which one would think to be a plus for a seminal gay play), our casting director focuses clearly enough to immediately dismiss his possibility of snagging the role.
Can I just say that if this casting director is symbolic of all casting directors then it's astounding more casting directors aren't found dead in back alleys? Portnoy astounds in capturing an entitled beast of a human being who manages to charmingly condescend with a twinkle in her eyes.
The heart and soul of Nora Highland exists in its mid-section, "The Meeting" between a mostly frustrated director with a golden opportunity and an actor who appears for a conversation that is an audition that he thinks is just a conversation because he's certain he's already gotten the lead in this show as an already successful, though out, actor. It becomes clear early on that these two, Linda (Marin Ireland) and Mark (Michael Hsu Rosen), have a history together and what initially starts out as an amicable, even somewhat playful, interaction becomes more heated as the conversation moves forward and it becomes clear that despite whatever common ground may exist that Linda isn't about to toss away her directorial golden ticket by casting a gay actor. The conversational back-and-forth here is riveting, both Ireland and Rosen absolutely stellar in capturing all the little nuances, unspoken silences that communicate much, and details about the casting process that are well known within the industry yet often left unspoken.
As Nora Highland winds down, it becomes apparent (if it wasn't already) how this story will ultimately transpire as it's happened again and again and again in real life.
Nora Highland had its world premiere at NewFest, New York's celebrated LGBTQ film fest and has enjoyed a successful and rewarding festival run. While Nora Highland was filmed during the heart of the pandemic, Spahn's creativity abounds here and he's managed to construct a convincing, convicting, and even heartbreaking film even while the ensemble cast was never in the same room and, at times, not even in the same country. This is ultimately indie drama at its finest, ideally suited to stage or film and featuring an ensemble cast that is stellar across the board and clearly bringing their hearts and souls to this filming despite the inherent production challenges.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic