Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2013
Directed by: Leland Orser
Stars: 3 out of 5
When spoken aloud, the title of Leland Orser’s latest drama, “Morning,” (watch trailer) has a hidden meaning. Like an optical illusion, the title hides its true meaning just beneath the surface. The word “morning” also has hopeful connotations, however, suggesting new beginnings. Both of these elements are present to varying extents in Orser’s emotionally challenging drama about the event that every parent fears. Although it’s not the feel-good movie of the year, “Morning” is a thought-provoking exploration of the various forms that grief can take.
The premise of the movie is bare bones yet manages to contain enough nuance and intensity to make up for the lack of plot twists or special effects. Mark (Orser) and Alice (Jeanne Tripplehorn) are in mourning over the loss of their only son. While the exact circumstances of the child’s death take some time to become clear, the cause was sudden and tragic. The loss of a child is never easy, but Alice and Mark didn’t even have the small blessing of forewarning. Instead, the death has left them dazed and reeling, unable to cope with everyday life.
Although one might expect a husband and wife to cling together more tightly than ever in the face of a joint loss, Alice and Mark do the opposite. They exist in their own private orbits of confusion and despair. Their separation is emotional first and foremost, but it also becomes a physical distance when Alice checks into a hotel, leaving Mark to their painfully empty suburban home.
Divorced from their normal lives, the two main characters enter into primal, almost dreamlike states. Mark deals with his raw emotional state by behaving in a childlike way, destroying household objects and eating sugary cereal. Alice engages in more social interaction, since she’s actually out in the world. Still, her disconnection is obvious. She often seems shell-shocked, unable to connect with people in an appropriate and meaningful way. Eventually, though, her interactions with other people guide her towards reconciliation and healing.
The camera follows Mark and Alice so closely that they sometimes seem like actors moving around a dark stage, lit by separate spotlights. Fortunately, Orser also fleshes out the story with a number of talented supporting actors. These secondary characters offer forward momentum in a narrative dominated by heavy, unmoving grief. The plot technically spans several days. However, if left to Mark and Alice, “Morning” might stay stuck in an undefined time of day. It’s thanks to these other characters that a symbolic version of morning is able to shine through by the end of the film.
A sympathetic grief counselor (Laura Linney) offers just the kind of gentle, firm advice that Alice needs. A doctor (Elliott Gould) also listens to Alice with kindness and warmth, even in the midst of delivering some surprising news. A hotel receptionist (Jason Ritter), a businessman with confused intentions (Kyle Chandler), a clueless best friend (Julie White), and an elderly housekeeper (Gina Morelli) also make appearances, pushing the story along in different ways.
For a director to star in his own movie inevitably makes the film more personal. Orser goes one step further by casting Tripplehorn, his actual wife, as Alice. Orser and Tripplehorn have a child together, just like the fictional couple. This may not be immediately evident when viewers watch “Morning,” but their real-life familial ties must have informed the making of the movie. As parents, Orser and Tripplehorn have undoubtedly faced the same needling worries that every parent lives with. This authenticity shines through in their performances.
Orser originally directed a short version of the film. This feature-length version can feel a little too slow and lugubrious at times. It lacks the crispness and neatness of a short film, instead giving audiences more time to lose the narrative thread or grow tired of the movie’s smothering atmosphere of grief. At the same time, this is the kind of subject that deserves a full-length exploration. Honest, raw, and devastating, “Morning” captures a range of human emotion that most people hope never to experience in their lives.
Tripplehorn and Orser turn in complex performances as a husband and wife who may lose each other as a result of their shared tragedy. With its slow pacing, its focus on ordinary details, and its unerring respect for its subject matter, “Morning” is a movie that does not shy away from tough emotions. Though it’s too brave a movie for a corny ending, “Morning” does reward its viewers with a glimpse of hope. For the brave at heart, though, this intense and difficult film is a reward in and of itself.