MORRIS FROM AMERICA
Director: Chad Hartigan
Cast: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller
MPAA Rating: (for teen drug use and partying, sexual material, brief nudity, and language throughout)
Running Time: 1:31
Release Date: 8/19/16 (limited); 8/26/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2016
Morris from America starts off as coming-of-age tale, with a fish-out-of-water bent, from a very specific perspective, and it gradually shifts to a more generalized outlook with a fairly predictable lesson to be had. This change is fine to a degree, because the strength of the earlier sections has a lingering effect. It also helps that the performances, especially from the teenage actor at the heart of the film, are strong.
The young actor is Markees Christmas, and this is his film debut. As Morris Gentry, he plays the kind of protagonist that we have seen many times before this: a teenager trying to find his path in a new place, figuring out how to talk to girls, maneuvering the evolving relationship he has with his father, and learning from the multitude of opportunities to make mistakes, both big and small, that life throws at a kid at this point in his life. Christmas handles it like a pro, with natural charisma and a definitive sense of this young man's progression.
The specific perspective here is that Morris is a black teenager who recently has moved to Heidelberg, Germany, with his widower father Curtis (Craig Robinson), who moved here so he could take a job coaching a soccer team. Because of their country of origin and their racial background, the two are unique in this city. Only a few of their fellow citizens treat them differently in an overt way, but such explicit displays of prejudice have become the exception of prejudicial behavior.
The father and son are still on the receiving end of certain attitudes. Curtis can see it, while Morris, who grew up in the Bronx, is starting to get a quick, tough lesson in recognizing and understanding it.
The 13-year-old Morris has been working to fit in with his new surroundings. He takes German language lessons from a post-graduate student named Inka (Carla Juri), who thinks the kid needs more social interaction to put his lessons to good use. It would also be good for him, since his father, the only person Morris has any personal interaction with other than his tutor, is about to start the soccer season. Inka suggests a summer youth program. Begrudgingly, he accepts the idea.
Pretty quickly, it's apparent that Morris doesn't fit in here, as he sits in the back of the room, separated from the other teens—all of whom are white. He doesn't want to fit in with them, either. Part of that might be homesickness, and part of it might be the language barrier, although he's fine enough for basic conversation in German and it appears that most of the kids know some English.
It's not helped by the fact that the first guy who comes up to talk to him assumes Morris plays basketball, doesn't listen to Morris when he says he's not interested, and proceeds with a ruthless torrent of insults based on Morris' nationality and race. If the kid didn't want to pick a fight when he asked about basketball, he's all too eager to become a bully with a specific, prejudiced angle at a moment's notice.
The screenplay by director Chad Hartigan isn't quite sure how to follow through on the ideas of this just-beneath-the-surface prejudice and how Morris reacts to it. Eventually, the writer/director dismisses them for the usual travails of a hormone-infused teenager.
Morris' eye is drawn to Katrin (Lina Keller), a rebellious 15-year-old girl. He follows her after a day at the program. She knows it, stops to talk to him, and suggests they should be friends. Morris wants more, of course, because he's at the age of going beyond noticing members of the opposite sex into the unknown country of wanting to do other stuff with them. His eyesight narrows to a porno magazine that someone has left on the ground, and in one awkwardly amusing and sad scene, he imagines wooing Katrin with a pillow, dressed in a sweater she left behind on the bus one day.
The friendship isn't all that seems on her end, either. From her insistence that Morris raps for her and the way that she appears to flaunt her new friend in front of her mother (whose almost horrified look and stunned silence when she sees the two of them alone in her daughter's room says a lot), there's a sense that Katrin is almost treating Morris as something of a pet. She has an older boyfriend, but it's more than just the playful, teasing flirtations of a teenager. Hartigan suggests some ulterior motive just enough that the film's unwillingness to follow through on such a possibility is slightly frustrating.
We basically know the result of this story, but it still remains engaging, thanks to Christmas' performance. What elevates the overarching narrative above the familiar is the relationship between Morris and Curtis.
They share a unique kind of loneliness—not only because of how they stick out in their surroundings but also because of the loss of a mother and a wife. Robinson, an actor who typically works in a comic vein, offers a sincerely felt performance here as a father who's trying to navigate the difficult terrain of simultaneously being a friend and a father to his son. He grounds the kid in the opening scene, only to un-ground him once he realizes he doesn't have anyone else to whom to talk. Once Morris begins going out to parties with Kartrin, poor Curtis is left alone in the apartment to worry that he's in far over his head.
This bond is what keeps Morris from America together. Whatever specifics the film may overlook or bypass in favor of something that's easier to digest, it gets this relationship just right.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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