Family members say Michael and JT were inseparable. Portland Press Herald file photo

STANDISH — As Michael Norton neared completion of his degree in communications and new media, he knew that he wanted to make a documentary about something. When his younger brother died by suicide, he decided to dedicate himself to making a movie in honor of his brother.

John Terrence “JT” Norton, who had schizophrenia, took his own life in December 2016 at age 27. A talented skateboarder, he was integral in getting the Johnson Field Skate Park built in town, and a statue honoring him now looks over the park.

At first, Norton wanted his documentary to focus on JT’s skateboarding. But after starting to work with professional filmmaker Reggie Groff of Portland, the film’s scope was broadened to encompass the entire Norton family, including parents Suzan and Terry.

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

“I was pretty amazed by their whole story,” Groff said. “The film (which is called “Brothers”) almost could be called ‘My Two Sons.’ The parents, and the mom in particular, is such a focal point of the film.” 

Norton has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, so his mother is “Michael’s hands in a lot of ways,” Groff said. “(In the film,) we see the mom trying to process the loss of her boy and the impending brevity of Mike’s life.”

The average life expectancy for those with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is late teens to early 20s. Norton is 32. 

As work on the film began, Norton spent hours combing through footage of JT skateboarding to select the best clips. Groff and Norton interviewed JT’s family members, a former teacher, friends and community members. They scoured home videos and photographs from the brothers’ childhood. Groff filmed the family going about their day-to-day life in Standish. The pair fundraised over $20,000 in donations to go towards the film’s production.

“(Mike) really wanted to make sure the skateboarding didn’t get lost,” Suzan Norton said. “(The film) had to be authentic, too. We showed (JT) as authentic as we could show him.”

After two years of work, “Brothers” premiered at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland in the spring. At 7 p.m. Nov. 15, it will be shown, along with another film called “Peace, Love and Zoo,” at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Admission is $12 a person. “Peace, Love and Zoo” is about artist Zoo Cain, his struggles with addiction and his life after becoming sober.

Suzan Norton said that when she first saw “Brothers,” which is an hour and 15 minutes long, “I just broke down. It was over, and Michael was able to achieve his dream of getting that done. It was very emotional. It was overwhelming. Some of it’s hard to watch because we were sort of new in our grief.”

For the most part, (making the film) was therapeutic for me. There is some stuff that is hard to think about still,” Norton said. “It was a busy process. But I enjoyed it from start to finish.”

Groff said viewers seem to love the film.

We had a lot of tissue boxes at the theater, and people used them,” Groff said. “There were a lot of wows and surprises. It has the laughs, and it has the sadness.”

Suzan and Michael Norton said making the film was difficult but therapeutic. Press Herald file photo

Suzan Norton said her family has decided not to remain silent about mental illness, as they did when JT was alive: “After he passed, we decided we wouldn’t be silent anymore.”

She encourages people to get help and hopes that this story is one that might help others. “For me, it was a story that I felt needed to be told,” she said.

Norton feels that JT’s illness was worse than his own because his is manageable: “I’d forgive him for what he did,” he says in the film, “because he doesn’t have to hear those voices anymore.” 

When Groff looked at the Nortons’ story, he said that he did not see a tragedy.

“I saw a film and a story that was very inspirational because how a family doesn’t just crumble under the weight of these hardships is just incredible,” Groff said. “How do parents even try to live, breathe, when their child has taken his own life? And the next day they have to get up and get Mike out of bed.”

We’ve been through ups and downs most of our life,” Norton says in the film. “And we’re not going to take it. We’re going to go out of this world fighting. Yeah, we don’t give up here.”

Groff and Norton have entered “Brothers” into a number of film festivals. The film was a finalist at the ARFF Berlin Film Festival in Germany and at the Peak City Film Festival in South Carolina. It won first place at the Made Here Film Festival in Vermont. The duo continues to search for other festivals to enter. Norton is also working on a variety of artistic projects, including a comic book.

“It’s just a regular day in the Norton household,” Terry Norton says in the film. “Things just don’t stop because something bad happened. We got to take care of this. We’ve got to be there for our kids. I have to be there for my wife. We have to pull together as a family.” 

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