Director: Chad Hartigan
R | 1h 31min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 19 August 2016 (USA)
If you have come off a run of festival films that feel emotionally draining, Morris from America will surely be the antidote to your woes. Writer/director Chad Hartigan's third feature is a charming piece of work; a perfectly likeable coming-of-age drama that's always enjoyable even if it rarely transcends. It features a superb breakout turn from actor Markees Christmas as the titular and very fish-out-of-water Morris; a kid who literally feels like the only one of his kind in an entire city.
Morris feels isolated because, as a 13-year-old African-American boy, he and his widowed father Cutis (Craig Robinson) are very far from home. As revealed to us after the camera pulls back from them during the opening sequence, as they eat ice cream and banter back and forth in a busy street, they aren't in the United States, but Heidelberg, a picturesque German town where no one else looks or talks like them. We learn that Curtis has been here for years because of his work as a football coach, and speaks the language well, while his amateur rap freestyler son Morris is making at least a token effort by taking German lessons from a female tutor with a cool-big sister attitude, called Inka (Carla Juri). His dad and Inka want him to try harder though, so the shy Morris is duly packaged off to a youth school, where the other kid’s innocent but grating assumptions about black people (of course, they think he’ll like basketball and drugs) and his own lack of confidence lead him to just clam up further…until the stunningly beautiful and precocious Katrin (Lina Keller) catches his eye, and her flirtations lead Morris to start pushing against his father’s boundaries, with late-night parties, ecstasy and road trips on the menu.
Nothing you have just read probably sounds mould-breaking, and yes, particularly in the third act, Morris from America treads a well worn with its slight self-discovery story and vibrant, Instagram-like colour palette. But the film rests solidly on terrific performances from the irresistible, smack-talking Christmas and equally engaging Robinson. Their father son-dynamic is not only warm and funny to roll along with, but is set on an arc that nicely sidesteps some of the cliches of father-son stories. For one thing, Morris isn't really a kid in rebellion for the sake of it (which might have led the character to simply come off as irritating) nor is his dad abusive or ignorant. Morris does love his father, he's just lacking confidence and at an age where everything from hurt to crushes seems magnified out of proportion, all experienced in a country where he feels isolated. He’s basically a good kid with a tubby build that he is sensitive about, and an understandably wary streak.
For his part, Curtis is actually a pretty awesome dad, aside from a killer taste in rap and old school hip hop, which Morris has clearly absorbed, he also is an empowering parent. His response when Curtis gives him an answer that sounds vague is not to scream disbelief through the door slammed in his face, but to carefully respond ;“I believe that might be true”. He’s struggling too, out of Morris’s sight we see him fumbling on the dead-end of the Heidelberg dating scene, and ruminating on the loose of his wife. Though it is an attack on the old heart strings; the inevitable father-son reconciliation scene in the third act feels earned when handled by these kinds of performers, who’s characters have been given plenty of space to breathe.