Sundance Diary – Day 6: ‘Morris From America,’ ‘The Blackout Experiments,’ and ‘Tickled’

The last day of viewing included a coming-of-age story set in an unusual place, and two films about desire gone mad.
Sundance Diary – Day 6: ‘Morris From America,’ ‘The Blackout Experiments,’ and ‘Tickled’
Image: Sean McElwee
'Morris From America'

Today is my last day of movies at Sundance for the year, which brings my grand total for this festival to twenty films. Yes: it is getting exhausting. But a funny thing happens along the way—when you see this many films at once, I think your critical muscles get stronger, not weaker. At home, in a typical week, I might see two or three movies, but after you’ve seen a dozen great narrative films, your bar is high.

A few standouts have emerged from this year’s Sundance (some of which I haven’t seen): The Birth of a Nation, Manchester By the Sea, Love & Friendship, Sing Street, The Eyes of My Mother, Kate Plays Christine, Morris From America, Green Room, Sonita, Certain Women. I’ve heard rumblings about other films and am looking forward to seeing them in the next year or so.

Morris From America

'Morris From America'
Image: Sean McElwee

'Morris From America'

Chad Hartigan made This Is Martin Bonner, a film beloved of many Christianity Today readers and writers (read Jeffrey Overstreet on the film). Morris From America is Hartigan’s latest, and while it’s very different from its predecessor, it’s also a ton of fun.

Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) is thirteen and living with his father (Craig Robinson) in Heidelberg, Germany, where his dad works for the soccer team. His mother passed away. As the only two black people in a sea of Germans, they stick out, but they’re close and they stick together. They joke (and sling dirty jokes at one another playfully) and hang out with one another. Morris is learning German and figuring out how to freestyle rap. One day, Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), who is 15, and they strike up a friendship.

From there, the film turns into a sort of classic coming-of-age story with a German twist. Morris is funny and sweet and just trying to find his way toward manhood. His father is loving and lonely. The scenes between the two of them are the best—by the way, when will we wake up and put Craig Robinson (who played Daryl in The Office) in all the movies?—but the cast of supporting characters are fun to watch, and the film’s writing had us in stiches.

In the Q&A after the film, Hartigan (who is white) said that he originally set the film in Dresden, but the racial tensions there are running high (especially with the influx of immigrants) and he knew that if he set the movie there, the fact that Morris and his father are black would become the story. Instead, the film acknowledges and depicts the casual racial prejudice the men experience in the context of the coming-of-age narrative. That’s wildly effective, and I’m glad he made that choice.

The Blackout Experiments and Tickled

'Tickled'

'Tickled'

These last two films are both documentaries, and perhaps it’s just because everything is blurring together, but to me they seem to be on the same theme, even though they couldn’t be more tonally different.

Tickled—the better of the two—started when David Farrier, a journalist in New Zealand who specializes in weird stories, discovers videos of “Competitive Endurance Tickling” on the Internet. Intrigued, he tries to contact the organization behind the “sport,” and in return receives a vitriolic email denigrating him (in horrible terms) for his sexual orientation and telling him to stop investigating. Farrier’s a good journalist, and this only makes him more curious. The rabbit hole it jumps down from there (it turns out the videos are linked to a tickling fetish, but if you can believe it, that may be the least weird part of the story) is just crazy, and Farrier’s film is both funny and disturbing in about five different ways.

'The Blackout Experiments'
Image: Michael J. Pepin

'The Blackout Experiments'

The Blackout Experiments is about an immersive theater-style experience simply called Blackout that started in New York City. The film’s main flaw is that it doesn’t really give us a sense of what this thing is and how it works; the filmmakers weren't given much access by the Blackout creators, so we get footage from inside the experience and the preparations that go into it, but no interviews with the creators. But through interviews with several participants who have more or less become addicted to Blackout, we learn that it’s a single-participant experience that is created to prey on a person’s deepest fears and desires. It’s basically paying to be mentally tortured (and, in some cases, physically tortured), something the participants freely admit.

I’ve been seeing a lot of shows and narrative films and documentaries about cults in the past two years, and so pretty early on in Blackout, I felt like what I was seeing was the formation of a cult. The hallmarks are there, particularly the need on the part of the participants to blindly trust “them” (the Blackout creators), the feeling that other “survivors” of the experience are the only ones they can talk to, the inexplicable high of the experience, the recurring return (at personal expense) to an abusive experience even after they express hatred—that’s all there. The ending is surprising enough that it counteracts this slightly, but I was left with far more questions than answers.

Tickled has weird cultic elements to it as well—in this case, the secretive narcissist running the whole operation. But what the two films demonstrated most is the bizarre, irrational human capacity to be addicted to desires that are way beyond the bounds of reason and self-preservation. That need, to do things that don’t make sense, is strong enough in some people that they’ll go to great lengths to feed it. Desire isn’t a bad thing—but man, when it gets out of hand, the results are terrifying.

Caveat Spectator

Morris From America includes a lot of crude language, including gangsta-rap style boasting of sexual exploits, lots of actual rap with misogynistic/sexually explicit lyrics, and teenage drinking and drug use, plus a scene (not played for laughs, thankfully) in which Morris pretends his pillow is a woman. The Blackout Experiments is by nature disturbing, and the nature of what goes on is graphically disturbing, with plenty of bad language. Tickled’s premise involves a fetish (though admittedly a not-very-graphic one; there’s no nudity) and discussions of homosexuality, plus a lot of bad language.

Our Sundance Coverage:

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

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Sundance Diary – Day 6: ‘Morris From America,’ ...