NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Morris from America opens August 19th, in DC on August 26th.
Being young and black poses its own unique challenges, but those troubles are exacerbated when in a foreign land. From the moment Chad Hartigan's crowd-pleasing, subtly deep Morris from America begins blasting the sounds of Jeru the Damaja's "Come Clean", it's obvious this won't be your typical coming-of-age story. Powered by sound of '90s hip-hop and boasting much of the same brash attitude, this is a film that is a guaranteed winner, whether at Sundance or beyond.
On the surface, it may look like your typical fish-out-of-water comedy, but Hartigan smartly weaves in an examination of black culture, especially when it comes to violent, misogynistic lyrics that are a frequent headline. It starts with the aforementioned "Come Clean", which we hear as Curtis (Craig Robinson) is playing the rap classic for his 13-year-old son, Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas), who isn't really buying into its greatness. "You're grounded", Dad says when his son complains about the beat being too slow. As if the generation gap between them wasn't wide enough, the camera pans out to reveal the two are actually living in Germany, an odd place for an African-American father and son to land.
The reasons why they are in Germany aren't as important as how they are both coping, which is not very well. Dad is lonely and when not working he wants to hang with his son. But Morris is a teen dealing with "dickhead Germans" who pick on him for being black, for being American, and for being kind of flabby. He puts on the attitude of a gangster rapper, reveling in the explicit rap lyrics he thinks make him tough and will inspire his future rap career. In the film's best scene, which Hartigan thankfully doesn't take too far, Curtis chastises his son for the lack of truth in his lyrics in which he brags about "fu**in' bitches two at a time".
But for Morris keepin' it real is tough as he tries to fit in with a place that doesn't seem to want him around. He makes an effort by learning German with Inka (Carla Juri), his sweet and sisterly tutor. But it's when he becomes friends with the dangerous, beautiful 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) that Morris' world begins to open up, for the better and worse. She not only encourages his gangster raps but forces him into situations where he needs to display them. At the same time she's also painfully distant when Morris, who doesn't have her maturity yet, comes seeking something more than friendship. Her flirtations play with his emotions in a way that's sometimes hard to watch given his deep loneliness, but she's also the kind of person that everyone meets somewhere in life that expands our horizons.
Hartigan seems especially attuned to the casual biases faced by African-Americans on a daily basis, and those prejudices extend far beyond America's borders. In one scene, the head of a local youth center accuses Morris of dealing marijuana, totally without proof. The white kids all assume he can play basketball and even Inka worries about his rap lyrics turning him into some kind of violent felon. Her concerns are met with a harsh rebuke by Morris' father, but Hartigan thankfully lets the topic die there rather than become an ongoing thread.
Much of what plays out for Morris are familiar, as he begins to test his independence in ways that we know will lead to some harsh lessons. There's the expected public display of his rap prowess, failed romantic encounters, and the realization that father and son are cut from the same awkward cloth. Aided by Hartigan's lyrics and Keegan DeWitt's nostalgic beats, the film has a clean, powerful street energy that keeps the mood bouncy throughout and a lot of fun.
It's good to see Robinson in a role that adds a bit of maturity to his silly comic whit. He makes for the kind of father a lot of people his age probably see themselves as, trying hard to instill some of themselves into their kids and finding it excruciatingly difficult. It's a completely winning performance and the same goes for Christmas who trades barbs and painful revelations with surprising ease for such a young actor. In truth, Christmas is terrific no matter who he's paired up with. Juri, who played the hygienically-challenged romantic lead in Wetlands a couple of years ago, shows a completely different side here as Morris' wizened mentor. And Keller has the kind of presence that is undeniable; it's clear from the moment she appears on screen why Morris, and other guys her age, wants to be around her.
It used to be that movies like Morris from America were commonplace, but that day is long gone and now they seem like novelties. Especially rare is an enjoyable, easily relatable comedy centered on the bond between an African-American father and son. At a time when the outcry for high quality, diverse films is louder than ever, Morris from America delivers everything those people could hope for; then drops the mic leaving them wanting more.
Rating: 4 out of 5