Film Review: September Morning

Despite its flaws, this drama marks an auspicious debut for writer-director Ryan Frost, who dramatizes the lives of five college freshman in the hours following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Specialty Releases

There’s so much that’s impressive about writer-director Ryan Frost’s debut film, September Morning, recounting the experiences of five college freshman in the hours following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The story unfolds in a dorm room of a New York-based, not-quite-Ivy League (but otherwise unidentified) university, where the students find themselves in the aftermath of a cataclysmic historical turning point—in some ways not unlike the assassination of President Kennedy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor—at the very moment they’re attempting to define their own ambitions, identities and personas.  

Over the course of the night and into Sept. 12th’s predawn hours, they talk about everything from SAT scores, sexual encounters and the divorce of parents to loftier topics centering on religion, fate and free will. For the most part the dialogue is smart, the characters are clearly delineated, and the storytelling is tightly structured.

Still, there are some major problems, starting with the film’s whole premise. Even if the events onscreen replicate precisely what happened in Frost’s dorm room on that fateful day—he says the script is inspired by his own experiences—it loses credibility in translation.  

Admittedly, a more truthful account portraying five young adults fixed on the television screen in shocked and horrified silence sharing a bit of intermittent commentary wouldn’t be especially interesting to watch. As told here, the national tragedy is referenced only occasionally. The news plays on in the background and one of the boys has an older brother who works in the Wall Street area and no one knows if he’s okay. But those snippets aside, the seismic occurrences in the outside world are designed as an informing framework and it just doesn’t work. The results feel inorganic and calculated, given the context.

It’s equally hard to buy into the film’s subtext, which indeed one of the students spells out. To wit: They have all been irrevocably changed and are now bonded together forever thanks to their shared experience. None of that rings true either.

Either way, the questions remain: Why is this narrative being replayed now? And who is the targeted audience for this low-key drama, evoking a 90-minute, off-Broadway one-act play far more than a movie? Indeed, at moments it feels like a well-filmed stage production.

And that brings up the serious challenge Frost faced in shooting a film on one set. It’s been done successfully from Reservoir Dogs to The Breakfast Club to the great Sidney Lumet classic, 12 Angry Men. But the material in those cases was more gripping than it is here.

Nonetheless, Frost’s talent is evident, especially in his creation of character details that sparkle despite the self-conscious demographic mix represented onscreen, including Jason, a Jewish “deep thinker” (Michael Grant); Eric, an Italian-American tough guy (Troy Doherty); Dish, a committed African-American soldier (Patrick Cage II); JZ, an Asian-American resident advisor (Michael Liu), and even an old crock (Max Gail) who shows up at the end to deliver pizza and offer words of wisdom.

Eric is the most three-dimensional character, particularly when he blurts out that nobody in the dorm room will be radically altered on September 12th, and contrary to the warm and fuzzy sentiment they’re sharing they don’t know each other at all and will not be buddies for life. It’s a necessary moment.

The acting is solid all around, though casting Gail as a pizza delivery man is way off. He is far more akin to an aging philosophy professor than to anyone who ever came near a pizza, short of eating it.

That said, Frost is a writer-director to watch.

Click here for cast and crew information.