Not all stories possess a grand meaning or purpose, no matter how well staged or acted. Not all stories need to be. Sometimes it’s enough to present a story in which the audience observes the choices they make and, in turn, is forced to make a choice of their own. That’s the case with writer/director Josh Becker’s (Xena: Warrior Princess) latest film, Morning, Noon & Night, which tracks one day in the lives of three individuals as they go about drinking, smoking, and snorting their addictions of choice. Coming across as less of an examination of the compulsions, Morning, Noon & Night makes no judgments and casts no aspersions as it asks the audience to consider their own sliding scale of appropriateness.
On an October day in Detroit like any other, Cliff Johnson (John Manfredi) begins his day by snorting a couple grams of cocaine, while Cliff’s friend Aaron Goldman (Frank Ondorf) guzzles a beer before grading history papers, and Cliff’s daughter Kelly (Carly Schneider) pops a pill before attending Aaron’s history class. As the day presses on, each of them finds themselves having to justify or normalize their behavior despite everyone around them struggling with one addiction or another. Even worse, though they can see the problem the others have, they each maintain a stalwart denial of their own culpability. Always jovial, but never happy, it’s just another day in the life for these three.
Given his extensive credits working in film and television, it won’t surprise audiences that Becker’s put incredible thought into every technical aspect of Morning from the staging of shots, the cinematography, and even the score. Working in tandem, these three elements create a sense rarely seen in character-driven drug-focused stories: an absolute lack of judgement. In fact, if judgement were to be cast on the actions, the whole feel of Morning is one of support. Cinematographer Daniel S. Noga ensures that every scene looks natural and organic, as if the audience were looking into their own homes or wandering their own neighborhoods. Sunlight’s pervasive glow fills scenes, rather than giving off an air of secrecy as each character engages in socially unacceptable behaviors. Building off the naturalistic lighting to create a normalization of circumstances, Becker also primarily stages the cast in either mid-range or close-up shots with the close-ups angled so the audience is forced to look up at whoever’s in frame. Psychologically, this places the cast in a hero position, as though they are the ones the audience should aspire to be, even as their behaviors worsen from being intoxicated. The final piece of Becker’s puzzle belongs to Joseph LoDuca’s (Bad Samaritan) music, comprised of jaunty, almost lounge lizard-like jazz tunes, which underscores through its light, fun approach that the events of Morning are without weight: not quite a satire and nowhere near a drama.
With the tone set by Becker, Noga, and LoDuca, it’s left to the cast to use the space they create to bring Morning to life. Each of the cast members, from central to minor roles, never feel inauthentic in their depictions. Manfredi and Ondorf get the bulk of the time, telling their stories of childhood pals, living within blocks of each other, who are mostly unaware that the other is killing themself through the over-indulgence of addiction. Manfredi plays Cliff as a passionate, bordering on quick-fused executive who claims he only does coke to keep up with his competition and can quit any time he wants, all while using his free time to hunt down a dealer with a supply since his ran out. Manfredi could easily play the role in a larger-than-life way that would play into audience expectations of how they think an avid coke user behaves, yet he plays it far more grounded and level-headed. Similarly, Ondorf’s Aaron lacks the stereotypical markers of someone constantly inebriated; instead, Aaron is presented as someone who’s keenly aware of how near-instantly sick drinking makes him yet continues on. Both characters require the actors portray them as human, lacking in caricature which makes both the silly moments and the more exaggerated moments far more believable. In the center is Carly Schneider’s Kelly, Cliff’s rebellious daughter and Aaron’s apathetic student. Her use seems far more adolescent and experimental in contrast to Cliff’s knowing over-use. This choice from Becker is a means of getting the audience to consider why one is seen as part of a phase while the other is viewed as a serious habit. Schneider plays Kelly as a touch nihilistic, either in reaction to her parents’ own drug use or as a general disinterest in pursuing an education or a career, but the performance conveys someone who doesn’t think too far beyond the next blissful trip. This unlikely triumvirate are incredibly fun to watch as they bumble along, which, given the subject matter, is strange to admit.
Morning’s narrative shares a kinship with that of many of writer/director Richard Linklater’s films. Like the wandering Sunrise trilogy or his more recent Everybody Wants Some!!, the whole of the story is focused on conversations and the way those conversations unveil who the characters are to both the audience and each other. In this way, what could be considered a meandering tale of self-destruction is actually more of a challenge to the audience in terms of social awareness. The characters, though existing in a form of delusion, are all aware of their habits and acknowledge what these habits do to them, yet they are equally quick to point out the others’ destructive behaviors as well. On the one hand, it’s obviously a deflection, but on the other, it posits a reasonable question about what the audience considers destructive. Excessive alcohol and cocaine are obvious in their damaging potential, but what about smoking? Sugar? Or, in moving away from ingestibles, what about the clothes we buy or the accessories we desire? Becker seems to want to establish a correlation between normalized and taboo addictions. It’s a daring question that should be far more overt in the execution.
Despite exacting direction, engaging performances from the cast, and an underlying theme of introspection, Morning just doesn’t enthrall the way audiences might expect. Other than observing decent people behaving badly, there’s nothing that really holds the audience in from beginning to end. There’s no lesson learned, no dilemma resolved, no real growth – just a group of people whose nihilistic view of the world becomes more hopeful on drugs or, at the very least, more bearable. So while the audience may not end up rooting for Cliff, Aaron, and Kelly, we certainly won’t be hoping for their downfall. We, like them, are just left feeling ambivalent.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.