Winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Screenwriting Award, writer/director Chad Hartigan’s third feature film Morris From America is the tender coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old African-American teenager, Morris (Markees Christmas), who is trying to navigate puberty and acclimate to a strange new world, after being relocated to Heidelberg, Germany with his single father, Curtis (Craig Robinson, The Office and This is the End).
Having to deal with the culture shock of his new life, Morris finds himself alienated by his lack of German, and the town’s shortness of diversity. But, with frequent German lessons with his perky tutor Inka (Carla Juri, Wetlands), and enrolment at the local youth centre, Morris is starting to find his feet. He becomes an easy target for some of the nastier local kids when he turns down an invitation to play basketball with them, but when he falls for the pretty and rebellious 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller), he finds that everything else takes a backseat; including his close relationship with his father. He finds himself exploring this confusing new feeling of love, and by following Katrin’s influence enters an adult world of alcohol, drugs, parties and road trips, for which he isn’t ready.
The beating heart at the centre of this film is the relationship between Morris and his father. Their happiness is almost-entirely dependent on the strength of their bond, which is based on mutual respect and has roots firmly in hip-hop. But Curtis, no pushover, shows he can deal the tough love when he needs to. He has taken a coaching role with a German football club, but realising that this city doesn’t offer much of a future for his son he is also pursuing alternate opportunities. He is so trusting of Morris, despite the signs of reckless behaviour and a struggle to acclimatise, that he leaves Morris at home alone when he travels to Berlin overnight. Curtis’ parenting approach feels very genuine, and his love for his son amidst his own loneliness carries tremendous power throughout this story. Robinson, in the first dramatic performance I have seen from him, is amazing.
Morris has aspirations for being a rapper, a part of his identity that he is clinging to, but doesn’t yet have the life experience to write and rap as his idols do. Perhaps this strange new world will provide the inspiration he needs. While his father has built a successful career in the world of football, Morris doesn’t share his interest – dedicating all of his passion toward hip-hop. When he hears an old tape of his father rapping, he is disappointed that it was not an original song, but a cover of one of Biggie’s. But, original content means nothing if it doesn’t come from a real place, and Morris learns valuable lessons about some of his own rhymes.
The film’s hip-hop soundtrack is explosive, doing a lot of the work in the early stages as an audio accompaniment to Morris’ isolation. Struggling to fit in, he drifts through the historical town plugged into his phone listening to his collection. As the film progresses the soundtrack becomes more diegetic; a part of Morris’ reality as he attends parties, and makes music a part of his friendship with Katrin.
The screenplay is funny and deceptively efficient, with exchanges between father and son possessing unsuspecting depth. The film opens with the pair analysing a hip-hop track – essentially, a lesson from dad – which we can interpret to be the result of communication about Morris’ aspirations. A heartfelt late reveal from Curtis brilliantly brings the team metaphor into their relationship. While they may be separated in age by thirty years they are both men trying to make the most with the hand they have been dealt, and how they’ll be okay if they trust and take care of each other.
This charming little film has a real shot at the Audience Award. It deals with issues explored in many adolescent-life films before it, yes, but driven by tremendous naturalistic performances from Christmas and Robinson, who you’d be forgiven for believing were actually father and son, it tackles ideas of trying to remain true to yourself and becoming your own man while at the same time trying to fit in, and explores the uncontrollable urges to grow up before you are ready with a delicate touch, and fresh perception and honesty.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Chard Hartigan
Writer: Chard Hartigan
Actors: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller
Country: USA, Germany
Language: English, German
Runtime: 91 minutes