Overview: The story of 13-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas), who has recently moved to Germany (from America) to live with his father, after the death of his mother. Morris struggles to fit in with a new social group, pursue his dreams of becoming a rapper, and navigate the difficulties of young love, all while dealing language barriers and cultural differences. A24; 2016; Rated R; 91 minutes.
Straight Outta Heidelberg: Depicted by an early scene in Morris from America, in which Morris walks down the picturesque streets of Heidelberg, Germany as a rap track plays in the background, the stage is set for the framework of a major theme of the film: the juxtaposition between German culture and American culture, particularly American hip-hop culture. Morris, an outsider in more than music taste, is forced to handle the stereotyping that accompanies being the only black boy in a German town.
Morris from America is written and directed by independent filmmaker Chad Hartigan and is his third feature length film. Like Hartigan’s previous film, This is Martin Bonner, this film savors quiet moments of sincere conversation in which characters work through their issues and struggle to connect despite their differences. On the surface, Morris from America is a fairly simple coming-of-age story, but stands out in the way it addresses aspects of cultural differences, race, and adolescence. Morris focuses on its characters and larger social issues in a way that generally avoids being overblown, insensitive, or cliché.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City: Markees Christmas is adorable as the baby-faced Morris, who is refreshingly nuanced for such a young character. He can be sweet, polite, sensitive, and quirky, at various points in the film. He’s an underdog without an exhausting sense of self-pity or victimhood, and his character retains a fantastic balance of sweetness with a naïve sensibility and an immature, defensive streak. Morris’ father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), is a well-meaning but once absent soccer coach raising Morris on his own after the death of his wife, Morris’ mother. The details of Morris’ mother’s death and Curtis’ absence for much of Morris’ life are remarked upon but largely left to our imagination, unspoken and unexploited. Also quietly addressed are Curtis’ own struggles with a sense of belonging, which contrast and overlap with his son’s story. Robinson, who first rose to prominence during his time on The Office, has since primarily acted in comedic roles. Morris from America, however, along with a recent role on Mr. Robot, has proved he has remarkable range, and he successfully handles both the comedic and dramatic elements of the film.
The object of Morris’ affection in Morris from America, too-cool-for-school Katrin (Lina Keller) is unfortunately rather one-note, and her main purpose is to fill the role of the idealized female crush that is a staple of coming-of-age films. She has little to do but act cool for much of the movie, and most of her character development comes too late in the story. Inka, (Carla Juri) Morris’ German language tutor, feels a much fresher character, non-condescending and funny, and very well-acted by Juri. Her interactions with Morris allow Morris to let his guard down, which allow us to see not only the best aspects of the character, but also Christmas’ acting ability.
The Message: The strongest moments in the film are the conversations Morris has with his father and Inka as the two try to connect with and guide Morris. Weaker, unfortunately, are the interactions between Morris and his peers. Both the romantic plotline between Morris and Katrin and the bullying Morris endures from his peers at the youth center, which serve as the main dramatic beats of the story, sometimes fall flat, feeling less impactful than intended.
There is an underlying message that gradually reveals itself: the struggle for acceptance and love is one that continues into adulthood. While the film doesn’t devote too much time to adults and their problems, Morris from America still manages to express that no one really has it all figured out. By the end of the film, neither Curtis nor his son have worked out the solutions to their problems, and ultimately come to the conclusion that being “the only brothers in Heidelberg,” as Curtis says, the two will have to support one another.
Overall: Refreshing and relevant, Morris from America is a coming-of-age story that manages to incorporate larger ideas of culture shock and racial stereotypes, and addresses sincerely what it means to grow up in a culture different from one’s own. Especially successful when it avoids crass humor and trite romantic plotlines, Morris from America is a charming new entry in the long tradition of coming-of-age stories.
Featured Image: A24