Morris from America
Directed by: Chad Hartigan.
Written by: Chad Hartigan.
Starring: Markees Christmas (Morris Gentry), Craig Robinson (Curtis Gentry), Carla Juri (Inka), Lina Keller (Katrin), Patrick Güldenberg (Sven), Levin Henning (Bastian), Leon Badenhop (Rainer), Marie Löschhorn (Birgit), Josephine Becker (Nadine).
In many ways, Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America is a typical Sundance movie – it’s a coming of age comedy/drama about a family, where a single dad struggles to raise his only son after the death of his wife. It is the type of film Sundance has become known for in recent years – and Morris from America was one of the buzzier titles to emerge from this year’s festival, although the enthusiasm for the film was certainly muted when it actually arrive in theaters a few months ago. That is a shame, because while Morris from America does hit a lot of the expected beats of a Sundance hit – it’s also a little subtler than most of them – concentrating on small moments, as opposed to big ones. Maybe this makes the film more minor than other films – but it also feels truer – even as it heads down the formulaic path in front of it.
The film stars Markess Christmas as the title character Morris – a 13 year old African American kid, living with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson) is Heidelberg, Germany. His dad was once a soccer player – and now he’s on the coaching staff of a team there. Morris is the only black kid in all of Heidelberg – at least, the only one we ever see. He barely speaks the language – and is pretty much isolated from everyone. His language teacher – a grad student named Inka (Carla Juri) suggests he go to the youth center after school – make some friends his own age. It’s there where Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller) – an older girl (all of 15) and develops a crush on her. He also runs afoul of some of the other kids and the supervisors – a not so subtle, but not overt racism coming into play with that as well.
What I liked about Morris from America is the way writer/director Chad Hartigan never really goes for the big, soppy, sentimental moment that most Sundance films would go for. We think it’s headed that way when it’s announced there is going to be a talent show at the youth center – and that Morris has signed up to do his freestyle rap there. But if we’re expecting a Little Miss Sunshine, show-stopping climax – it doesn’t come – Hartigan dispenses of the talent show only a few scenes later. Instead, Hartigan concentrates on the relationships in Morris’ life. Craig Robinson is great as Morris’ father – the kind of guy who will defend his kid to those outside the family, while punishing him inside of it (not unfairly – but he does want Morris to know they are a unit). His relationship with Inka is also nicely played – and hits closer to reality than we may think. They are teacher and student – and while they like each other, Inka is only going to go so far to help him. Morris’ friendship with Katrin is destined to end in his heartbreak – everyone in the audience can see that, and I think even Morris understands that is where it’s headed – but it’s still nicely played out. Katrin may be slightly careless with Morris’ feelings – but it isn’t cruel what she does.
Morris from America is a nice film – it’s funny and well-acted, and well-observed. It is a film about race – but that stays beneath the surface a little bit – Morris doesn’t talk about it. But the feeling is certainly there – in America, young black men can feel isolated and targeted – but at least there are other young, black men going through the same thing as them. In Heidelberg, Germany Morris stands out everywhere he goes – everyone looks at him funny, even if no one comes right out and says it. I liked the way Hartigan handles this – and everything else in the movie – in a subtle, understated way – and the performances help. The film feels minor while it plays – funny, entertaining, but minor – but it sticks around for a little bit after it ends – something the Sundance films that rely on bigger emotions, simply don’t.