Morris from America (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Lina Keller, Carla Juri, Patrick Guldenberg, Levin Henning, Eva Lobau
Director: Chad Hartigan
Screenplay: Chad Hartigan
Review published August 21, 2016
Morris from America is a coming-of-age story about a pudgy, thirteen-year-old African-American kid named named Morris Gentry (Christmas, Markees Saves), who lives with his widower soccer-coach father Curtis (Robinson, Sausage Party) in a place where there are few who look like them, Heidelberg, Germany. Under a suggestion by his German instructor, Inka (Juri, Wetlands), Morris attempts to make friends while in his new environment, meeting an impulsive fifteen-year-old local named Katrin (Keller, V8). He's instantly attracted, but he's not quite sure if she feels the same way. The mischievously flirty Katrin tries to get him out of his shell by unplugging the headphones he perpetually wears as he walks though life and invites him to various parties with the local kids around his age, much to his father's chagrin, where Morris has to contend with the fish-out-of-water experience first-hand by striving to break out of his comfort zone. Perhaps only the crush on Katrin is able to compel him to try, though following the heart can also lead to heartache in this tender time of confusion for many young teens.
The greatest strength of the mostly spot-on dramedy comes with the casting, with an especially strong and vulnerable performance from Markees Christmas as the young and out-of-sorts Morris. Christmas imbues his character with a very rounder and very real personality that has us believe in him as a three-dimensional person from the get-go. Initially, he is strikingly reminiscent to Ricky Baker, the young gangsta-rap wannabe character of about the same age in Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, except Morris is much more grounded in a reality that makes us instantly connect with him. Perfectly complementing Christmas is Craig Robinson in a refreshingly layered dramatic role as his loving father, who we come to learn is seeing in Morris many of the same feelings and desires that he himself experienced at that age. Curtis wants to be his son's friend and confidante as much as his guide and reluctant disciplinarian, not wanting to be shut out of his son's mind, hart, or life experiences. Swiss actress Carla Juri and relative newcomer Lina Keller are also wonderful in breathing life into smaller roles as Morris's concerned tutor and wild-child friend-who-might-be-more, respectively.
Morris from America feels so authentic in its characterizations that you'll be surprised to learn that its writer-director, Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner, Luke and Brie Are on a First Date), is not black, doesn't have kids, doesn't know German, and is not originally from America -- he was born and mostly raised in Nicosia, Cyprus, to an Irish father and mother from Nevada. And yet, his film features characters that feel nearly as real as a documentary, only indulging in stereotypes except to comment about them (the German kids all suspect that a black kid from America should naturally know how to play basketball and dance amazingly, though introverted Morris seems to want to do anything but those things.). The keen sense of music is also refreshing in its authentic use, starting with father Curtis imparting knowledge of true hip-hop by playing Jeru the Damaja's underground anthem from 1993, "Come Clean", through an old-school tape from Curtis busting "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G., and finally, the slow jam seduction song only a neophyte to romance would fantasize to, in Miguel's "P***y is Mine". It should be noted that Morris's first attempt to write a rap song, the raunchy braggadocio Curtis chastises the lad for not speaking true, "F***ing all the B*tches" was actually written by Chad Hartigan himself when he was twelve years old (a "freestyle" rap that Morris performs late in the film is credited to (yet unsigned) Pasadena rapper J. Hurt).
Because so much about Morris from America rings true to the characters, it is an easy recommend for those who enjoy indie coming-of-age stories with unconventional perspectives. Hip-hop heads will enjoy this more than most, but there's plenty for most audiences to relate to, even for those who've never experienced what it's like to be a 13-year-old black American kid living in Heidelberg (the list must be short) -- the angst and awkwardness of teenage loneliness in a place where one doesn't fit in is a common feeling for many. Funny, poignant, incisive, and deftly delivered, it's the kind of movie that has you hoping it will get the same treatment as Richard Linkletter's Before series, where we can peek in on how Morris is progressing from time to time as the years roll on.
©2016 Vince Leo