Sebastian Schipper’s latest drama is a road movie that becomes a border movie. Roads opens with two teens, in Morocco, in extraordinarily different predicaments: Gyllen (Fionn Whitehead) has stolen his step-dad’s RV and plans to escape family vacation by making his way to his real father in France; William (Stéphane Bak) has come to Morocco by way of the Congo, hoping to reach Europe, where his brother is in trouble. The two trust each other immediately, sharing a sense of optimism for their near-impossible journey.
Early in their journey, everything’s made easier by their youth, as the dangers they survive roll right off of them. Most of the movie’s pleasure comes from the genuine love that develops between the two young men, the courage they find in their collaboration. Once Gyllen and William cross over to the European continent, though, the film must confront the worldwide refugee crisis. Schipper’s script does so clumsily, killing much of the momentum of the movie’s sweet first half, though not uncaringly.
The balancing act of a serious buddy movie, in which one buddy is a financially-secure white Brit and the other a Congolese refugee, is a tough one. Schipper’s answer to this tension is an ethos of enormous generosity. William trusts Gyllen because Gyllen trusts him. The assumption of good intentions is what gets Gyllen from Morocco to France, putting his faith into strangers.
As soon as Gyllen and William elude the imminent dangers presented by Morocco, the pair settles into banter. They are goofy; jesting each other about English Premier League teams, in defiance of their uncertain conditions. Their rapport lends them an unflappability through the movie’s first half.
Everything changes when the RV reaches Europe. It would be strange, possibly even wrong, to have a movie like this one avoid the ubiquity of the European refugee crisis. Schipper expands the story’s scope by having the boys pick up refugees along the way. The crossing into Europe could’ve been a fulcrum, when the film’s perspective could have shifted from Gyllen to William, and committed to William’s quest across borders as the story’s heart.
Instead, Gyllen reveals a trauma of his own, and the movie deals equally with the two tragedies that drive our main characters. The focus meanders, shifting between Gyllen and William’s now-distinct emotional recoveries. In this relationship shift, away from a buddy movie of playful collaboration into one of sorrowful support, Roads loses something.
Roads runs into a familiar problem: the cramming of plot into the third act. The antics that drew the pair together disappear as each attempts complete his own hero’s journey.
The central relationship is what works here. All intrusions on it, be it plot or intervening characters, obscure the love that makes the 100 minutes worthwhile.
Schipper’s attempts at enlarging the scope of the picture are admirable, and he proves himself a capable guiding hand once again. Neither the filmmaking nor the performances here are showy. The pleasure of the movie is in its ease, the ease between our two protagonists and the ease with which Schipper transitions from thrill to melodrama to comedy. These are the borders Gyllen and William cross without a thought. The pair lives in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, choosing whichever side of that line serves best for the moment. It’s when these interior borders come up against the national ones that the movie loses part of its identity.
We screened the film at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.