German director Sebastian Schipper burst onto the international scene in 2015 with Victoria, a craftily made one-shot, real-time heist movie that premiered in competition at the Berlinale, walking away with several awards and garnering a fair amount of buzz abroad.
For his latest feature, Schipper has widened his scope — to several countries and a more traditional shooting technique — but has also narrowed it, concentrating on the intimate relationship between a pair of teenagers who meet on the road: a rebellious 18-year-old Brit played by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, Port Authority) and a shrewd if scared Congolese refugee played by relative newcomer Stéphane Bak (Elle).
Together, the young men journey from Morocco into Spain and finally over into France, trying to track down the former’s dad and the latter’s long-lost brother. Along the way, they experience a slew of adventures, some of them lighthearted and some of them distressing, forming an unlikely bond along the way that will hopefully outlast their voyage.
If the premise of Roads sounds conventional, with a story that slides into clichés and then slips out of them, Schipper does a good job making the plights of his two wayfarers feel rough and real. Backed by two promising performers, as well as a striking array of locations, the film provides a gritty you-are-there portrait of contemporary Europe as seen through the eyes of two young men on opposite sides of the border. (Although with Brexit looming, they’ll soon both be outside the EU.)
On the one end there’s Gyllen (Whitehead), a temperamental if spirited English loner who decided to ditch his mom and stepdad during their Moroccan holiday, taking the family RV along with him. And on the other there’s William (Bak), a soft-spoken and observant boy from central Africa hoping to find his older brother, Baptiste (Josué Ndofusu), who was last seen in one of the refugee settlements located around Calais.
The two cross paths near Casablanca in the first scene, and they spend the rest of the movie traveling together — and sometimes apart — toward similar destinations: family and France.
The fact that Gullen and William happen to be heading to the same place for similar reasons is a bit hard to buy at first, providing a coincidence that feels like a screenwriting shortcut. (The script is credited to Schipper and Oliver Ziegenbalg.) But the resulting trip is rocky enough, filled with mishaps, breakdowns, meltdowns, fights, drugs and robberies, that it takes on the tenor of a real journey, even if certain plot points still feel contrived.
Just as Schipper immersed us in seedy after-hours Berlin in Victoria, which he shot on the streets, and in the bars and nightclubs, of the German capital, in Roads he takes us on a veritable trek across two continents and several countries — sometimes at the wheel of the RV, other times on foot, by ferry or by stolen motorcycle. It’s the kind of movie that feels like it was made entirely by a second unit, hopping from one place to the next without ever firmly setting its feet anywhere until the very end.
Photographed in vivid widescreen by Matteo Cocco, the film features settings that mainly consist of highways, gas stations, rest stops, trailer parks and, during the documentary-style finale, illegal immigrant camps. The assorted locations provide a snapshot of modern-day Europe that accompanies the freewheeling road trip, mixing scenes of the boys smoking hash and partying with darker moments where they face the troubles of their own lives, as well as those they encounter during their journey.
If Schipper manages to give his pic a true sense of place, he’s less successful when aiming for straightforward narrative — even if his two stars are fairly excellent and, in certain scenes, quite moving. But the plot involving Gyllen’s estranged dad (Ben Chaplin), who has decided to start a new family in southwestern France, feels truncated, hardly giving enough time for their big crisis to develop. Likewise, the story between William and his brother Baptiste works itself out a tad too fortuitously, bringing a movie-ish quality to what could have been a more powerful ending.
Unlike Victoria, which became a hot title after Berlin, Roads has managed to pass under the radar since its premiere at Tribeca, scoring theatrical releases thus far in its co-producing countries of Germany and France. That’s unfortunate, because although the film provides less of a wow factor than Schipper’s crime flick, in some ways it feels more honest and relevant, attempting to capture the wavering states of two young men — and a whole continent — on the brink of change.
Production company: Missing Link Films
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Stéphane Bak, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ben Chaplin, Marie Burchard, Josué Ndofusu
Director: Sebastian Schipper
Screenwriters: Sebastian Schipper, Oliver Ziegenbalg
Producers: Sebastian Schipper, David Keitsch
Director of photography: Matteo Cocco
Production designer: Chloe Cambournac
Costume designer: Jürgen Doering
Editor: Monica Coleman
Casting directors: Jina Jay, Stéphanie Doncker
Sales: Hanway Films
In English, French, German, Spanish, Lingala