Synopsis: The romantic and coming-of-age misadventures of a 13-year-old American living in Germany. (Source)
“Youth isn’t a stage in life but an attitude”, someone says very early on in Morris From America. It’s a statement that best sums up director Chad Hartigan’s exploration of adolescent confusion, self-discovery and first love. Set to the ebb-and-flow of old school hip-hop, the film is a surefire crowdpleaser, replacing the violence and machismo stereotypically ascribed to the genre with a heartfelt father-and-son story surging with energy and tons of laughs. Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson are dynamite together, a new duo for the ages who personify the film’s fish-out-water ideas with authenticity and charisma. Though the film doesn’t stray far from most films of its type, its a smart perspective that’ll put a giant grin on your face, and is relevant now more than ever.
When we first meet 13-year old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas), he’s being grounded by his father Curtis (Craig Robinson) for not seeing eye-to-eye with one of his father’s favorite hop-hop tracks. Of course, the punishment is only half-genuine, and soon Curtis is whisking Morris away so that two can go get ice cream. As it turns out, the pair are outsiders and each other’s only source of normalcy as immigrants in Heidelberg, Germany, where Curtis coaches soccer. For the most part, Morris is used to being on his own, a pair of headphones perpetually in his ears, until one day his German tutor Inka (Carla Juri) encourages him to socialize at a local park program. Once there, he finds that he has strange feelings for an older girl, one who quickly bonds with him but keeps herself oddly at a distance. As Morris comes to blows with the alien world around him, he also learns the importance of self-worth, seeking refuge in his rhymes and a father who’s incapable of giving up on him.
Taking a story we’re familiar with and setting it abroad, Hartigan’s film gains new context and works from numerous angles. Morris’ story is a rich one that gives Hartigan a chance to cover all the bases, from racial discrimination, bullying, escape and expression through art, unrequited love and even the importance of being able to make our own mistakes. Everything’s always worse when we’re younger and can’t see the bigger picture, and this film is great at blending that angst through the rhythm and rebellion of hip-hop. The story’s heart, however, is Morris and Curtis’ relationship, with tough parenting decisions which mirror Morris’ own coming-of-age. In fact, one of the film’s best moments comes from the disconnect between Morris’ tough-guy rhymes and their innate dishonesty – he gets put in check by his father, not because of their naively graphic nature, but because they aren’t true to the life he’s lead. Spinning hilarious Jay-Z impressions, playful banter and Morris’ own budding sexual curiosity into a blend of painfully hilarious misadventures, the film is bound to please whether you come for the music, laughs or sincere look at growing up.
Aside from a smart script and stylish direction, the film also benefits from the charm of its ensemble. As Morris himself, Christmas is a swirling cocktail of sincerity and innocence. The film’s naturalism comes from him, and he is great at immersing us into his foreign surroundings and state of mind. There’s also a youthful mischievousness to him that makes us want to never leave his side – we honestly just want to hang out with him no matter what. As Morris’ dad Curtis, Craig Robinson shines in a dramatic turn. He’s still really funny, but Robinson perfectly encapsulates the film’s conflicts as a single father who is in over his head. Adding a patience and understanding to the character that’s absent from most roles of this type, Robinson makes him a genuinely good guy who just wants the best for his son, showing nuance and earned sensitivity. As Morris’ crush, Katrin, Lina Keller is another complex character who keeps us on the edge. She gets to take an archetype and give it new depth – we never can tell where her character is coming from, a testament to Keller’s ability to showcase fragility behind a cool exterior. Lastly, Carla Juri is noteworthy as Inka, Morris’ tutor who encourages him to really find his niche. Juri does a lot with a limited role, acting as a big sister type who looks after him with a nurturing, yet objective viewpoint.
To put it bluntly, I couldn’t be more in love with Morris From America. It sweeps us up, renders us helpless against its charm and is just a complete joy to watch. There’s no way you can walk out of it and not be in the best mood, taking a cue from its musical influences to deliver a pulsing, lively look at staying true to ourselves in a world we don’t understand. Without being saccharine, the film is touching and emotionally genuine, a sharp antidote for a genre that usually wallows in darkness – you’ll be impressed by its range, cheering by the end and begging for more.