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Where were you when the towers fell,
When a nation was numbed by an unforeseen hell?
What hollow activities padded the day,
As newscasters had the same horrors to play,
The same videos, the same headlines to tell?
And wasn’t “tomorrow” new cause for dismay?

Yet here we are, many years past the threat,
Still filled with the grief that once shocked and upset.
New courage since then, we’ve been forced to adopt.
We all may recall the day normal life stopped,
But let not the sadness cause us to forget
The day it began again, day for night swapped.

MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be R, for language)

The last two years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of 9/11 by watching movie re-creations, letting United 93 and World Trade Center remind me of the tragic power of that horrific day. This year, though, I had the privilege of attending a free local screening of a small independent film called September Morning, a 9/11 film that never shows the planes or the smoking towers, instead dramatizing how average Americans far from New York, specifically a group of college students, reacted to the day that changed America.

Filmed over thirteen days and set completely in a small dorm room, September Morning takes place during the night of September 11 into September 12, after everyone was sick of the repeated news stories, sick of the fear and uncertainty, “tired of watching history being made.” The five college freshmen who spend that difficult night together include jocular Eric (Troy Doherty), promiscuous Lynz (Katherine C. Hughes), pessimistic Justin (Michael Grant), reserved Shelly (Taylor Rose), and vengeful ROTC cadet “Dish” Fisher (Patrick Cage II), who gather for pizza, beer, cigarettes, and conversation to distract from the oppressive melancholy that ruled the day. Each of those adjectives I assigned them are very general, as all of them fit those descriptions at some point, never coming off as stereotypes or anything less than genuine. The film doesn’t suffer one bit from its independent status, since every one of the actors is beyond reproach, with skillful direction to match from first-time writer-director Ryan Frost, who based the film off his own experiences as a freshman at the University of Richmond in September of 2001. Based on this film, I’d say every one of these talents is a name to watch, if only they would get the right notice.

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The banter of the newfound college friends is heartfelt and sometimes funny, though rarely in a laugh-out-loud sort of way, but the shadow of 9/11 hangs over everything. Throughout the film are discussions and even silent reminders of the events of the previous day, offering much insight into how people felt at the time. When someone suggests watching a movie, Justin objects that whatever they see will be stigmatized to remind them of this time, just as anything showing the Twin Towers bears a solemn memory. The mood changes drastically when someone mentions planes or Arabs.  Shelly voices her hesitation at having a good time with friends after seeing people jump from burning buildings. There’s a debate about how people can pray and believe in God at times like this, with two characters sticking with Jesus while Justin argues for cynicism.

In many ways, September Morning struck me as The Breakfast Club for a new generation, simply set in college rather than high school. The whole film is basically a five-way conversation about these young people’s joys, fears, insecurities, and anger, simply with 9/11 as the context and trigger of these volatile emotions. There’s even an antagonistic authority figure in Michael Liu’s resident assistant, who criticizes the group’s self-medicating attitude and is summarily resented. As with The Breakfast Club, it’s easy to relate to these characters, and everyone is bound to see themselves in one or several of them at some point.

My main problem with September Morning is the language, with a surfeit of casual F-words surpassing anything in The Breakfast Club. In addition, the sexual conversations get uncomfortably graphic at times, even if nothing is shown. The frequent obscenities sadly make it a film I wouldn’t watch often, taking away from the otherwise impressive acting and thoughtful dialogue. (“Maybe fate is just a series of events that lead people to the same place.”) The lighthearted scenes often leaned too crude, but when the serious moments came, they rang true, particularly a brilliant exchange with the pizza delivery man (Max Gail, known to older viewers as “Wojo” on Barney Miller), whose age and experience help the young people put the traumatic day in perspective.

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As with Life, Animated, I actually got to take part in a Q & A after the screening, this time with writer-director Ryan Frost, and he expressed his desire to memorialize how it felt on September 11 and 12 for the average American, especially since most college students will soon be part of a generation that doesn’t even remember 9/11. Even with the unnecessary profanity, September Morning succeeds as an encapsulation of those feelings and makes a point of contrasting the anger and despair with the kindness and encouragement that 9/12 instilled in people. As I left the theater with its flag flying at half-mast yesterday, the memory of the grief was lightened by the knowledge that, as hard and complex as it is, life does go on.

Best funny line: (Eric) “We’re all white people from the suburbs.”   (Dish, who’s black) “Excuse me?”   (Eric) “Oh, sorry, Justin’s Jewish.”

Best serious line: (delivery man Don) “When you get older, you tend to remember that time to time, the world goes crazy, but it doesn’t stop.”


Rank: List Runner-Up


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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