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Morris From America (2016) Review

Morris From America is a drama about a black teenaged American boy living in Germany with dreams of being a rapper while having trouble fitting in. A sometimes touching, sometimes funny coming-of-age story, it is a gentle, honest film that has challenges but plenty of rewards.

In Germany, American Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) is a 14-year-old shy kid living with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach whose wife recently passed away. The adjustment is not easy, but Curtis does his best, mentoring, guiding, and instilling the values that can make a difference. Theirs is a special bond, a father who needs his son as much as the son needs his father. While some of that placates to predictable storytelling tropes, both Christmas and Robinson are so good, and deliver such natural performances, it’s easy to give that a pass. This is a rare father/son film that refuses to play the formula.

Morris sets the tone of his side of the story early on. Talking with his private tutor, German teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), he boldly tells her he doesn’t need any friends, which we take right as being wholly the opposite. She urges him to spend time with people his age, and so he ends up with a youth group where teenagers gather to play sports and participate in other activities. Naturally, he doesn’t quite fit in, and he takes to isolation even while surrounded by people his age. It’s not long though when a pretty young girl named Katrin (Lina Keller) catches his eye. She’s a bit of rebel, a light smoker and party girl who influences Morris to step outside his comfort zone, leading him to test his father’s rules. Being the man he is though, Curtis isn’t quite so disappointed, wanting his son to have the same enriching experience he once had.

Morris From America
Markees Christmas, Lina Keller (Morris From America, 2016)

This is the real strength behind Morris From America, the relationship between the father and son, one that is not conventional, avoiding the expected. Morris is clearly unlike the children in his circle, they thin, white, and blonde. Morris, black, a bit chubby, and reclusive, endures their mocking, trying to deflect names like “Big Mac” and “Kobe Brant” that the boys use to both remind him of where he’s from and what he is to them. Only the sinewy Katrin seems willing to bridge the gap. She is curious about his somber appearance but more so his blackness, having no exposure to his race or culture and urges him to answer some rather pointed (sometimes awkward) questions about rap music, dance, sport, and certain anatomical myths she wonders if are true. These are the hurdles of any teenager coming of age, but are made more apparent with Morris as he navigates all of it with language and cultural barriers. All the while, his father deals with his own loneliness and desires.

Directed by Chad Hartigan, some of this exploration and rebellion is sublime, with a soft, sincere touch that Haritgan deftly handles. He recognizes sincerity and the importance of even the tiniest things that affect a young person, from the first look at a boy or a girl you like, to the first touch. Hartigan captures these moments with genuine affection and he treats these characters with respect, allowing them to develop and take hold with patience and nurturing, something often neglected in modern film. He also isn’t afraid to show the graceless moments as well, the personal experiments in the dark when young bodies and minds try to keep up with each other. A moment with a pillow could have easily been cringe-worthy but instead properly begins with discomfort before swaying to understanding and even acceptance.

At the center of all this is music, especially the rap and hip hop beats that define both generations. As Curtis attempts to school his son on the rhythms that influenced him, Morris is more interested in rap and naturally takes to imitation, often to hooks and lyrics that mean nothing to him (gratuitous sex and violence) but ones he feels he should replicate. Curtis isn’t so much upset with his son’s attempts at building rhymes with foul language as he is in not keeping true to himself, something he has tried to teach from the beginning. Of course, Morris will find his way and even gets a chance to debut his skills in the right setting, but it’s the conflict and resolutions of these two main characters that keep it so rewarding.

Robinson shines in the dramatic role, finally getting a part that allows him to shed the supporting comedic trappings of his career so far. He’s convincing and affecting on many levels, and reveals that there’s much more to this actor than what we’ve seen thus far. Christmas, in his film debut, is very well cast, and captures the angst without overdoing the stereotypes, finding great balance in what has a lot of potential for the melodramatic. The film as a whole does play it safe a bit too much though, keeping it a pleasant, simple story with few risks, but still remaining a very satisfying experience.

Morris From America (2016)

Film Credits

Director: Chad Hartigan
Writer: Chad Hartigan
Stars: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller

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