Director: Chad Hartigan/2016
Morris from America is the coming-of-age story of a 13 year old boy named Morris (Markees Christmas), who has moved from New York to Heidelberg, Germany with his father after his mother passed away. His father, Curtis (Craig Robinson) is a coach for a professional soccer team, having moved to Germany years before to follow his future wife, who was studying abroad.
Morris is a typical teenager. He enjoys rap music, watching television, writing lyrics in a notebook, dressing in his own style, and is curious about sex. The only difference is that Morris feels like a fish out of water in Heidelberg. For one, he and his father are the only self-described “brothers in Heidelberg”. The students at his school make a point of referring to him with American and racial stereotypes such as calling him “Kobe Bryant” when asking him to play basketball (because all black people are supposed to play basketball in the minds of the German students), and calling him “MC Big Mac” when they learn that he likes rap, is American, and overweight.
He is even the first accused when a teacher at his school finds a joint on the school grounds, showing the bias and stereotypes against him as an outsider. While much is made about his race, this is more about being in a place that one doesn’t feel they belong, which can include race, but could be about so much more as well. Morris’ story could be many people’s story.
Morris from America is a small film, with a lot to say for those who are able to catch the messages in the subtle details of each frame.
Morris has no friends, and his only social connection is an undergrad student named Inka (Carla Juri) who is being paid to teach him German, so that he can transition better. Inka and his father are encouraging Morris to be social, make friends, give Germany his best shot. The only interesting classmate Morris has is a 15-year old German girl named Katrin whom Morris is attracted to. Knowing this, Katrin both befriends Morris, and gives him reasonable indications that she is attracted to him, which only encourages his crush, while at the same time crushing his spirit with cruel acts.
Katrin tries to invite him to experiment with the drug Ecstasy, and even Marijuana, and to attend parties and techno music performances. She also claims he is her boyfriend to make her mother mad, while dating another guy altogether which again messes with Morris’ emotions. Morris tries to play it cool and act above it all, but is clearly in over his head, until a talent show at school gives him a chance to show her his rap skills and possibly win her heart.
Morris from America is a simple story, and its humor is often subtle and seen more through the misfortunate circumstances Morris endures socially. What is more compelling, is the struggle that Morris is having relating to his father who desperately wants to be involved in Morris’ life despite being gone at work a lot, which leaves Morris to tend to himself much of the time, only adding to the isolation Morris is already experiencing. When we see Morris floundering and being emotionally toyed with, we understand how a 13 year old could feel being in a new place, with dubious friends, struggling to deal with the loss of his mother, and an often absent father. Of course he is going to make mistakes, yet we hope for the best.
Chad Hartigan directs this story with a subtle touch allowing for the story to be seen from various angles depending on who is watching. Younger people may easily see the story from Morris’ point of view, where adults will catch the story from Curtis’, or even Inka’s, point of view as they seek to steer Morris the right way, even when Morris is more interested in listening to his peers than the adults in his life.
Craig Robinson, is widely known as Darryl from the U.S. version of The Office, or perhaps in films like Hot Tub Time Machine, or The End. Here, he takes on a more serious role, though gets to share his trademark humor and singing skills, this time courtesy of a mix tape he gives his son from when he was rapping Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.) lyrics from back in 1993.
As Curtis, Robinson is able to show the generational gap in humorous ways, such as when he grounds his son for not liking his generation’s version of hip-hop, rap, and R&B. Or how he criticizes his son’s rap lyrics, not for being explicit (which they definitely are), but for not being based on something real that he has personally experienced. He is also able to show a genuine love for his son and model to follow for any single father seeking to raise their child through the turbulent storm of adolescence.
Markees Christmas makes his first feature film appearance and knocks his role out of the park. He is able to balance the false bravado of a 13-year old boy who thinks he is ready to be on his own and make his own life decisions, with the realization that he still needs parental guidance and continued maturity.
Morris from America is a small film, with a lot to say for those who are able to catch the messages in the subtle details of each frame. It is now playing at the Sundance Theaters.