In Morris from America, the thirteen year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) wants to be a rapper and is urged by his father (Craig Robinson) to rap from his own, unique perspective rather than try to falsify his own life experiences that could not possibly have happened. Every subject has been covered in storytelling, and all you can ask for is if someone is telling you a story, be it in rap or the movies, is a unique perspective. We have seen fish-out-of-water, culture-clash stories before. We have seen coming-of-age stories before. We have seen first love stories before. Morris from America is all of these things. Luckily, Chad Hartigan‘s film has a unique perspective, making for a lovely, warm, and funny picture.
Morris and his widowed father, Curtis, have moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Curtis is one of the coaches of the local soccer team. They essentially hole themselves up in their house, keeping each other company. Morris only leaves to be tutored in German by the close-to-graduating Inka (Carla Juri). As an assignment to help practice his German, she urges Morris to go to the local youth center and, hopefully, make some friends. Unfortunately, the people there are “German dickheads” who pester him about not wanting to play basketball (because don’t all black people play basketball?) and make fun of him for his large frame, giving him the moniker MC Big Mac. That is except one older pretty girl (two years older, but in kid years that’s everything) named Katrin (Lina Keller), who Morris instantly develops a crush on.
What I like most about Morris’ infatuation for Katrin is we all know this is bad news for Morris. She is a teenage rebel who hates her mom, smokes pot, and is a groupie for a DJ. Morris is a sweet kid with no interest in that stuff but is naïve to the world, not knowing this girl is not “the one.” This is just a lesson Morris has to learn, another experience he can grow from. So, when Katrin accidentally leaves a sweater in Morris’ possession, we can see how sweet it is that he puts it around a pillow and pretends to dance and bed her, but we anticipate just how crushing it will be when she inevitably abandons him. The film could easily demonize Katrin as well, but thankfully, it never does that. She is her own person with a multitude of issues. It’s a very emotionally in tune film.
This is also some of the best parenting I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Curtis is an immensely loving father who focuses nearly all of his attention on his kid. He is not smothering in any way. He is what parents should be: nurturing. If Morris is going to a party, all Curtis wants is a note saying he went. He doesn’t badger him about who will be there, where it is, and if any adults will be present. He knows he can’t stop Morris from doing the things teenagers have done forever. And he knows his own kid. He knows him better than Morris knows himself. If he was the type of kid who would go off the deep end, he would step in, but right now, Curtis knows these are things a kid his age has to go through. This also applies to Morris’ music. He is not upset that his lyrics have explicit language in them. He is upset because the lyrics aren’t true to Morris.
However, the real star of Morris from America is Morris himself, Markees Christmas (great name). The kid is extremely adept at playing things under the surface. He puts on a smile, but deep down, he is hurting and lost. So when the bottling up gets to be too much for him, those bursts are very powerful. Christmas also has terrific comedic timing and can turn the charm on when he needs to be endearing. And all of this is done without feeling phony or kid-actory in the slightest.
The movie is not averse to cliché, mind you. There is still the performance to prove his worth to everyone (and himself) element. There is the doomed road trip while the parent is out of town. There is the teacher becoming a family figure type person in his life. I was worried Hartigan would step too far into cliché and have Inka fall for the widowed dad who needs to move on, but graciously, that does not occur. But, like I said at the beginning, these stories have been told forever. It’s just a matter of if you have something new to add to it.
Morris from America is not groundbreaking, but what it sets out to do, it does extremely well. The second-half of act two does get caught up a bit in plot mechanics, slowing things down a tad, but that is an easily forgivable problem. When a movie feels like it has earned the triumphant on stage performance at the end, it has checked off every box it needed to. Thanks to a strong quartet of performances, emotional maturity, a warm sense of humor, and a unique view on this type of coming-of-age tale, Chad Hartigan has a lot to be proud of with Morris from America.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews