The truth is that I hesitated to approach reviewing Michael Helgens's autobiographical short film Morris.
Despite having spent a good majority of my adult life speaking out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the truth is that I always feel that same hesitation when I decide to surrender myself to stories of abuse in film or other forms of media.
Oh sure, I do it. I've watched films such as Mysterious Skin, Blue Car, The Butterfly Effect, Lovely Bones and many others. I watch them. I review them. I review them fairly, though I'd be lying if my intense familiarity with the sexual abuse experience doesn't impact how I experience the films.
Helgens is up front about the fact that Morris his story and Morris is part of his own healing journey and part of his determination to help others.
That's why, I suppose, I have to review Morris.
Morris tells the story of Morris, played as a youngster by Caden Miller-Baker and as a young adult by Dylan Jaeger, whose sexual abuse over an extended period at the hands of his mother's boyfriend (Scott Blow) has manifested over the years in his daily life despite his conscious efforts to squelch its impact. A gay young man who has seemingly never forgiven himself for not quite realizing it was abusive until it had been going on for quite some time.
As a young man, Morris struggles to fit in socially, his social skills seemingly constantly interrupted by distorted thoughts and flashbacks from the past invading the present. Even when it comes out that his sister also experienced the abuse, Morris desperately tries to push everything to the background and denies his mother's guilt-ridden inquiries as to his own experiences.
It's only when Morris realizes that the former boyfriend may have a new victim that he begins to realize that he may have to be the one who breaks the cycle of abuse.
Filmed on location in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, Morris is the kind of film that creeps you out completely because it should. Realizing that Morris is based upon a true story is devastating, though certainly Morris is, at times, hindered by that lack of objectivity that seems to inevitably impact any survivor who chooses to artistically express their journey. It's a difficult task and one that many actors and filmmakers have failed to do convincingly, so one must automatically give respect and kudos to Helgens for embarking on a most difficult task.
As a survivor myself, and one who has written a book, I found Morris a difficult watch as it's clear that Helgens has pushed himself to be raw and authentic without ever exploiting Morris. That's a difficult balance as the abuse that relives itself in one's head can't, and I'd dare say shouldn't, be recreated on the big screen. Instead, Helgens focuses on the cyclical nature of the abuse and the tangible ways in which it has impacted Morris's life, from suicidal impulses to difficulty with medical exams.
The film's ensemble cast is strong, though they deserve credit for not over-emoting Helgens's already dramatic story. Morris could have been an overly melodramatic film and, somewhat surprisingly, it's not. Instead, Morris at times seems to maintain a safe distance from itself - in essence, the camera serves as both storyteller and observer to the story that unfolds. Dylan Jaeger, in particular, is achingly vulnerable and memorable here while Scott Blow is convincing enough that I'd likely not want to meet him on the street.
Yeah, I still have unresolved issues.
Morris does have its technical issues as one would expect from a short film made for less than $1,000. However, while the sound mix is occasionally uneven and the lensing occasionally lacks the variation that might drive the story home a little more impactfully, the truth is that the film's unevenness complements Morris's unevenness quite nicely.
Both intellectually honest and emotionally satisfying, Morris is a difficult film to watch but an important and necessary film to watch. With Helgens intending the film to help others, one can only hope that the film finds an audience and, perhaps, a life on the indie and underground festival circuit. For more information on the film, visit the film's website linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic