“Morris from America”
Film is reviewed from the 2016 Atlanta Film Festival screening.
When we first meet Morris (Markees Christmas), he is being taught about old-school rap from the 90s by his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson). Right from the start, we see that they have a great relationship, as Morris keeps teasing his father for his choice of music and his rapping style. Morris’s kidding hits a little too close to the bone and Curtis sends him to his room, where Morris practices his own form of rap. Soon a bored Curtis, knock on Morris’s door to get him for a trip into town for ice cream. As they walk we realize that this isn’t America but somewhere in Germany, and both father and son are a long way from home.
Curtis, a single father, works as a professional soccer coach. Morris is still trying to get his bearings in a town where he stands out and has trouble fitting in with the local kids. He is being tutored by a young woman named Inka (Carla Juri) who gets along well with Morris, trying to get him speak more German but also go out into the world and experience life, instead of staying in his room writing rap songs. Inka assigns Morris homework that he must go and check out the local community center that has programs for teenagers.
Morris is content to be on his own at the center, staying off to the side writing his songs, while the rest of the teens play basketball or talk. He is even subject to a bit of racial profiling when a couple of the kids try to get him to join their basketball team, assuming that just because he is a black kid from America, that he is interested or good in the sport. While sitting alone, Morris notices a teen girl who seems to be the center of attention of both boys and girls. She sees him and decides to find out just who he is. Her name is Katrin (Lina Keller), a German girl who smokes cigarettes and acts much older than her age of 15. She is out of Morris’s league, but he doesn’t know that, and his attempts to impress Katrin could just change his life forever.
“Morris from America” is a combination of a fish out of water story and a coming of age film that cares about its subject. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Morris and his father. We never actually find out what happened to Morris’s mother, but we do know that she was the love of Curtis’s life. The father is struggling to stay active in Morris’s life. It’s tough to stay on good terms with his son as he matures, wanting to spend more time with girls than hang out with his father. Curtis is also struggling with keeping track of Morris, not knowing quite when to pull the reigns on Morris’s adventures. Morris is trying to adjust to the dynamic of his father is starting to act more like his parent and less like his pal. Curtis is constantly reminding his son, that they are in this experience together because they may be the only two black men in this city.
Craig Robinson does a masterful job as the single father who loves his son and is willing to make this experience in a foreign country work. Robinson has the just right about of smart ass in him to make his caricature credible while also showing that his character has a sweet and loving side. I loved his interactions with Markees Christmas and their timing together is about as good as it gets, making their scenes seem believable and at times, moving. Christmas is a breath of fresh air for a film that rests almost solely on his back as his character is in virtually every scene. His portrayal of Morris is more complicated than what he lets us see of his character from the start of the film. As the movie goes along, we realize Morris is much more complex than we first thought, and it’s a credit to Christmas’s acting that we see this slowly and not at all at once. Christmas has the tough job of anchoring film about a thirteen-year-old boy who his homesick for America and is trying to impress a girl who is far more mature than he is. His portrayal of Morris around Katrin gives us the idea that Morris isn’t as confident as he lets on when he is around the girl, and this could be a rocky, painful ride.
Writer/director Chad Hartigan script places a high importance on music as it’s the way that Morris and his father can communicate with each other. The scenes where they talk about their love of music are brilliantly funny. Hartigan spent quite a bit of time picking the songs for the film, and they help create the essence of the film. It’s said that music is the universal language of mankind, and it’s no more evident in this movie as cultural, age and language barriers are broken, helping the film’s characters connect.
There are a couple of things I didn’t like about the film. Hartigan pulls out the race card a number of times to make Morris more sympathetic, something that isn’t always needed. Technically there are several occasions that Hartigan used a couple of pinhole fade shots to transition to different scenes that just seemed out of place with the rest of the film and drew my attention away from the movie itself.
Overall, this is a movie that works due to its highly creative storyline, great chemistry between Christmas and Robinson and a script that treats its characters like they are living, breathing people. Hartigan has created a world that feels real while being charming, funny and at times, moving. Let’s hope that someday Morris does become a rap star, because he has quite a bit to say. My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
“Morris from America” played to a packed house at this year’s Atlanta Film Fesitval and won two prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Special Jury Acting Award for Craig Robinson. After its winning performance at Sundance, the distribution rights were bought by A24, which plans on distributing the film to theaters later this year.
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