Multihyphenate Leland Orser more inspires grudging respect for his austere storytelling than emotional empathy for his anguished characters in “Morning,” an initially intriguing but ultimately exhausting tale of grieving parents left quite literally dazed and confused in the wake of their young son’s death. Years after its trek on the fest circuit (closing credits reveal a 2009 copyright), this technically polished but tediously lugubrious indie drama is finally getting limited theatrical play before its consignment to homescreen platforms.
Early scenes establish the monochromatically somber tone as Mark (Orser) announces his inability to remain under the same roof with Alice (Jeanne Tripplehorn), his wife, a few days after their son’s untimely demise. (The audience only gradually learns that the boy is indeed dead — and doesn’t discover the circumstances of his death until well over an hour into the film.) But while Mark soon returns to their suburban home to wallow in his sorrow, Alice pulls herself together long enough to check into a hotel — and then spends most of the rest of the pic wandering to and fro in a zombie-like state.
At first, Tripplehorn’s portrayal of Alice as a shell-shocked wreck has an undeniably affecting impact. As “Morning” progresses, however, the one-note character steers the actress perilously close to self-parody. Still, even when she’s throwing up for the umpteenth time, Tripplehorn isn’t forced to do anything thing as silly as construct a mini-landscape of Oreos, Fruit Loops, Legos and other objects in a cluttered kitchen. That unpleasant task is left to Orser, who recalls Richard Dreyfuss’ excesses with mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as David whiles away long hours in alcohol-fueled somnambulism.
Directing from his own minimalist screenplay — an expansion of his 2007 short of the same title — Orser relies heavily on game supporting players to provide infusions of vigor whenever the movie appears ready to stop in its tracks. In just about any other context, Elliott Gould (as a sympathetic doctor), Laura Linney (a fortuitously located grief counselor) and Kyle Chandler (a hotel guest who mistakes Alice’s neediness for a come-on) would be seen as underplaying. Here, though, they come very close to serving as comic relief. Julie White earns a few genuine laughs as a clueless family friend who attempts to cheer up Alice by recalling how she over-ate and over-shopped after her husband’s death.
Orser doesn’t make it easy for himself, or his audience, with his single-minded focus on parents in the grip of an unimaginable grief that stuns and dispirits. But while he deserves some credit for dealing head-on with a subject only rarely depicted so vividly in movies — Nadine Trintignant’s “It Only Happens to Others” (1971) and Shawn Ku’s “Beautiful Boy” (2010) are two of this pic’s relatively few precursors — “Morning” plays more like a formal exercise than a cathartic drama.