Beyond The Multiplex: Herzog Goes Digital With ‘Lo And Behold’ And The Warm, Knowing Coming-Of-Age Story ‘Morris From America’

If it weren’t for obsession, Werner Herzog wouldn’t have much of a career. It’s been a theme he’s returned to time and time again in narrative films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It’s also been his own driving force. You don’t make a movie like Fitzcarraldo — a film about a man pushing boat over a mountain that Herzog made by essentially doing the same thing — unless you’re prepared to go all in on every project. It makes sense, then, that so much of Herzog’s recent career has consisted of documentaries that require him to immerse himself in the topic of his choice and surround himself with those already fixated on his latest interest.

Lo And Behold: Reveries of the Connected World finds Herzog traveling not to some remote location like France’s Chauvet Cave or Antartica. Instead it’s a series of visits with those touched, in one way or another, by the internet, including some of the computer scientists responsible for bringing it into existence, visionaries like Elon Musk who see it as a tool to create the future, and some who feel themselves exiled from the digital world. Over ten segments, Herzog attempts to explore the past, present, and future of the internet, and how we live with it.

The film begins at the beginning, visiting the UCLA lab where the internet began via a failed attempt to communicate the word “login” to a computer at Stanford, one that got only as far as the “lo.” Hence the film’s title, but Herzog doesn’t find any irony in the biblical echoes of that moment. Larry Kleinrock, one of the men present at that moment in 1969, suggests it should now be considered “a holy place,” and Herzog doesn’t offer any disagreement, though his voice, as usual, sounds filled with wariness and skepticism.

If nothing else, it’s a moment from the past whose ripples can still be felt in the present, not all of them pleasantly. In Lo and Behold‘s most harrowing sequence, Herzog visits the home of a family of Nikki Catsouras, a young woman killed car accident. Not allowed to identify her body because of the gruesomeness of her death, they then looked on as grisly photos from the accident began to circulate on the internet and turn up in their inbox accompanied by awful jokes. When Catsouras’ mother refers to the internet as “the spirit of evil,” it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from.

Herzog finds internet fatigue elsewhere, too, among online addicts and those who claim to suffer from “radiation sickness” caused by the inescapability of the wired world who now live in rural retreats away from technology. That’s to say nothing of the apocalyptic possibilities created by the internet, as revealed by a conversation with a security expert who confirms only that he can’t really say anything about the cyber attacks he’s fought against, campaigns with comic book-ready names like “Titan Rain.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Herzog seems sincerely enthused when he volunteers to go to Mars for Elon Musk — now that would be a documentary — and curious about the affection engineers have developed for their soccer-playing robots, particularly one dubbed “Robot 8.” (“Do you love it?” Herzog asks. “Yes we do,” one replies. “We do love Robot 8.”)

Despite the occasional classically Herzogian interjection (of the UCLA computer science building: “The corridors here look repulsive…”), Herzog interjects himself into the action less than usual, and there are stretches that could use a bit more of his take on what he’s seeing. The segmented approach sometimes works against it, too, if only because the film sometimes leaps too quickly to the next topic. Any of its ten chapters could probably have sustained features of their own. But an overarching vision emerges anyway, even if it’s one Herzog never states explicitly: Like it or not, there’s no taking back that first moment when one computer reached out to another and we’re all living in the future that unfinished first word summoned. “Could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?,” Herzog asks a pair of brain researchers. Maybe, the film seems to suggest, it already has.

The internet has made the world a smaller place in many ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s always made it a more comfortable place, or one where we understand each other any better. In Morris From America, the eponymous Morris’ (Markees Christmas) American heritage is just one element that sets him apart in his new home in Heidelberg, Germany. Black, introverted, and a touch overweight, he has a hard time fitting into a country where he’s still learning the language and has little understanding of a culture that doesn’t really understand him either. What’s more, he’s 13, an awkward age for anyone, but an especially difficult time to be surrounded by a bunch of kids who wonder why you’re not more enthused about playing basketball and teachers who turns an accusing eye on you when they find a joint.

The third feature from Chad Hartigan (Martin Bonner), Morris From America rarely strays from Morris’ side, capturing the confusion and frustration he experiences in his new home — feelings compounded by the circumstances that brought him there. He’s having a hard time, but so is his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach who’s taken a job with the local, not particularly good, team after his wife’s death and who’s barely keeping it together himself. He’s trying, though, sending Morris to German lessons with sympathetic tutor Inka (Wetlands star Carla Juri), encouraging his attempts to make friends, and keeping a watchful eye on him. But as much respect as he has for his father, Morris’ independent streak kicks in when he focuses his attentions on Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old classmate far more comfortable her own skin, and in the world at large, than Morris.

Hartigan’s low-key style puts the focuses on the small dramas of early teenage life as Morris’ feelings of not fitting in get compounded by classmates who taunt him by calling him “Kobe Bryant.” He doesn’t soften his approach when Morris responds badly, lashing out at them or retreating into sullen silence. The film even raises the possibility that he’ll never be able to fit in, that where he comes from and where he his now are simply too different, and that he’ll never reconcile swaggering figure he fantasizes about being with the awkward kid he really is.

In one of the film’s best sequences, Inka reads a journal Morris has left behind and grows concerned with the rap verses he’s written, some elementary rhymes about “f*ckin’ all the bitches two at a time” She takes her concerns to Curtis who tells her in no uncertain terms to back off. A hip-hop fan from way back, Curtis then takes Morris to task not for his obscenity but for his inauthenticity. “Let Snoop Dogg rap about f*ckin’ bitches two at a time,” he says. “Because he’s done that.”

It’s the closest Morris From America comes to spelling out its central theme, that if Morris is going to grow up he’s going to have to learn to be himself, whoever that is and wherever he lives. Mostly, Hartigan conveys this via action, letting Morris learn it for himself as he throws himself into one situation for which he’s not quite ready after another, eventually drifting too far away for his father to rescue him.

Christmas, deftly conveys what Morris is going through even in long stretches where he doesn’t have much dialogue. He keeps Morris recognizable and sympathetic even if, like every 13-year-old, he’s often a self-centered, unlikable mess. Christmas has a remarkable rapport with Robinson,who’s always been good, but never gotten a chance to be this warm, or this serious. By mostly hanging back and observing, Hartigan captures the depth of their bond and the ways that loss, displacement, and the unavoidable process of growing up can test it. It’s a fundamentally sweet film, but one that understands that no matter how hard parents work to make their kids feel safe they’re not always a match for a world seemingly determined to make them feel lost.

Lo and Behold opens in select theaters today and begins expanding next week. Morris From America also opens in select theaters today before expanding and is available to watch on demand via DIRECTV.