An estranged German father and son spar while gradually making their way toward reconciliation during a Morocco sojourn in Caroline Link’s “Exit Marrakech.” The exotic travelogue aspects only do so much to color an essentially familiar narrative arc, and journeying with these two prickly characters is unlikely to stir the same widespread enthusiasm that greeted the writer-director’s Oscar-winning “Nowhere in Africa.” In contrast to that sweeping expat epic, “Exit” is really a small-scale drama somewhat arbitrarily set against an expansive background, but one that ultimately satisfies on its own more modest, gracefully crafted terms. Sales should be hale in numerous territories.
About to turn 17, Ben (Samuel Schneider) is a talented aspiring writer of obvious intelligence, but also an apathetic student with an attitude problem, as his boarding-school principal (Josef Bierbichler) not unkindly tells him just before the place shutters for spring vacation. While most of his mates are going to hit the beach at Nice, Ben is most reluctantly going to join his father, Heinrich (Ulrich Tukur), on a cultural-exchange theater tour in Morocco. Heinrich is a successful stage director specializing in avant-garde versions of classics; he’s also a serial philanderer who left Ben’s actress mother, Lea (Marie-Lou Sellem), long ago, and has shown little interest in his son since. As a result, the two are immediately at odds, with Ben constantly bolting from their luxury hotel to explore the “real” Tangiers, to his father’s annoyed worry (exacerbated by Lea’s frequent check-in calls).
Taken to see edgier aspects of the city by two members of Heinrich’s local crew, Ben develops a somewhat inexplicable interest in a pretty but hardened local prostitute. He spends the night with Karima (Hafsia Herzi), insisting they simply sleep together sans sexual contact — for now, at least. The next day, after more disagreeable interaction with Dad (who, upon reading the boy’s hitherto well-received short stories, dismisses them as cliched), Ben impulsively accompanies Karima to visit a remote mountain village and the family she supports via the world’s oldest profession. His presence there is considered scandalous, however, and he’s sent his own way.
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His unknown whereabouts prove a great nuisance to Heinrich, and of great long-distance concern to Lea — not least because Ben is a diabetic whose blood sugar levels and insulin injections must be carefully monitored. Nonetheless, carrying only his skateboard, he enjoys freedom in this very foreign land until police and parent finally track the “missing person” down.
Pic’s remainder is the expected father-son road trip, in which argumentative and unspoken tensions at last turn (with the help of a crisis or two) into a new mutual understanding. Resisting sentimentality or played-up melodrama, Link lets her not-always-likable lead characters slowly reveal their softer sides, abetted by the kindness of strangers met along the way. Paul Bowles’ Morocco-set literary classic “The Sheltering Sky” is duly referenced (along with its 1990 Bertolucci film adaptation). But despite superficial similarities between the two, this latter-day North African trek is a much lighter affair, without that tale’s undertow of existential doom.
Principal thesps are very good, ably supported by a highly (but not ostentatiously) polished production package that errs only in some over-frenetic editing early on. Bella Halben’s widescreen lensing and Niki Reiser’s attractive score make valuable contributions.