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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: April 29, 2019

Making ‘Brothers’ was Standish family’s way of easing pain

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Michael, Suzan and Terrence Norton in 2016, not long after the death of son JT, pictured.
Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Pain doesn’t discriminate. From the physical to the emotional to the seemingly unbearable pain of loss, we all get our share. But some families have more than their share. In fact, for a family like the Nortons of Standish, it would appear that they have endured enough pain for a whole town. But the Nortons have taken their pain, as raw and immediate as it is, and made something of it. Something, they hope, that will ease the pain others may be going through.

“Brothers” is a feature-length documentary by Mike Norton and Portland filmmaker Reggie Groff that will have its world premiere on May 15 at Portland’s Nickelodeon Cinema. Mike started working on the film after his own brother, John (known to all as J.T.), took his own life in 2016. An outgoing, popular young man with dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder, J.T. Norton had battled against schizophrenia for years before his mother, Suzan, came home from work one night to find her son dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 27.

Filmmater Reginald Groff filming co-producer Mike Norton for “Brothers.”
Photo courtesy of Suzan Norton

For the Nortons, J.T.’s death hit like a bomb. For Mike, in a wheelchair and severely restricted in his movement and breathing by the Duchenne muscular dystrophy that he was diagnosed with at age 4, the loss was compounded by the closeness that marked the brothers’ lives. With the active J.T. often taking on his younger brother’s caregiving duties, and Mike happily documenting J.T.’s skateboarding heroics from his own, ever-present wheeled vehicle, the two were largely inseparable, until J.T.’s illness forced him further and further into isolation. Mental illness and suicide can break a family, the helplessness and unthinkable pain grinding down even the most formidable spirits. For Mike and Suzan Norton, pain galvanized them. “Brothers” is their tribute to a beloved young man felled by a terrible disease, but also a testament to how to move on – and to use your pain to help others.

“I graduated (from filmmaker Corey Norman’s communications and new media studies program at Southern Maine Community College) not long after J.T. took his life,” said Mike Norton. “I’d studied media arts, graphic design, video editing – all that stuff. I thought it’d be a good idea to tell my brother’s story and also bring awareness to the issue of mental health.” So began a two-and-a-half-year process, in which a chance meeting put Mike and Suzan in touch with local filmmaking veteran Groff, who helped them shape their project as it grew beyond Mike’s initial plans. Originally envisioned as a traditional skate movie tribute, complete with interviews from J.T.’s friends in the skating community, “Brothers” gradually broadened in scope as Mike and Reggie Groff’s interviews took shape.

“I wanted to show my brother as a person first, rather than just focusing on his struggles with mental illness,” explained Norton. For Groff, who shares co-director credit with Norton, that process took on added layers with every new interview. “The film deals with three or four different themes – schizophrenia, and suicide by J.T., but also how a family copes without breaking. How they face a hardship with incredible creativity, like Mike’s incredible creativity in writing, art, and film,” said Groff. In addition to hardworking husband and father Terry Norton’s strength, Groff also marvels at Suzan’s creative energy in organizing, fundraising, and facilitating her son’s project, including approaching mental health professionals about appearing on camera to give perspective on schizophrenia and its toll. “Suzan’s a fireball,” said Groff, “I can’t keep up.”

For Mike and Suzan, “Brothers” also serves to give voice to the pain – and the love – they still feel every day since J.T.’s death. Suzan says that, while she was determined that the film should be respectful of the challenges faced by both her sons, and of them both as people, “Brothers” has meant breaking free of the silence and shame that often surrounds mental illness and suicide. “That very night I found J.T., I decided, ‘I’m not going to be silent about it any more,’ ” Suzan Norton said. “We’d suffered in silence about it for five years, and I knew then we had to talk about it. We knew that making the film would affect, in a good way, communication and dialogue, in communities, schools. We were stuck in this silent cycle of grief, and we knew we had to get beyond it.

“Love,” said Suzan emphatically. “It’s all about love.”

“Brothers,” according to Groff, is filled with love, warmth and surprising humor, although it inevitably makes for a viewing experience as challenging as it was in the making. “It’s inspiring,” said Groff, “although occasionally hard to watch.” But for Groff, “Brothers” marks another project that’s revitalized his passion for directing. “I’m loving this kind of filmmaking,” enthused Groff, who branched out from his successful Munjoy Hill production company, Groff Video, by documenting Portland “outsider artist” Zoo Cain in similarly sensitive detail in 2017’s “Peace, Love, and Zoo.” “Doing this for 40 years and then getting to witness and share, and ultimately inform and potentially change someone’s life – it sends shivers down my spine to be so privileged.”

The film, which has been financed completely out of pocket by the filmmakers, has a running GoFundMe page, where those interested in helping the journey of “Brothers”‘ past its Nickelodeon premiere and onto the festival circuit can help defray the always-present costs. Suzan Norton said there have been over 250 people who’ve donated so far to the film’s meager estimated $23,000 budget – a fact that, she said, is pretty awe-inspiring.

Watch the trailer:

That’s in keeping with the film’s mission, one that continues outside the cinema as well. Recently receiving the Heroes With Heart award from Maine Health’s Trauma Intervention Program, Suzan and Michael Norton met other families whose lives have been touched by mental illness and suicide. Said Suzan: “People came up to us in tears. I just listened, and said that there’s one thing you need to know: If you have someone in your family who did take their own life, they didn’t do it to hurt you. They were in a lot of pain.” She added, “There is no shame in how my son died.” Still, as she says, “Brothers” is there for those who feel ready to see it. “Who’s going to be (at the premiere) – that’s who’s supposed to be there.”

“Brothers” will have its world premiere on May 15 at the Nickelodeon. For tickets and show times, check out the Nick’s site, patriotcinemas.com. And for more information about the film, the Norton family, and how you can chip in as the film heads out into the world, check out the fundraising page.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

PMA Films

Starts Friday: “Transit.” In this haunting drama from director Christian Petzold (“Phoenix”), a German refugee with a dead man’s papers winds up in the French refugee community, where he meets a young mother and son, and a mysterious woman with secrets of her own.

Space Gallery

Tuesday, May 7: “Common Carrier: A Survey of Works by James N. Kienitz Wilkins.” Space brings us this bracingly original and witty movie meditation on the life of the artistic mind from acclaimed filmmaker Wilkins.

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