'Morris From America': Sundance Review

Morris from America Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
More character-focused than your usual coming-of-ager.

Markees Christmas stars as the eponymous 13-year-old African-American kid in Germany in this new film from Sundance alumnus Chad Hartigan ('This is Martin Bonner').

As if being a slightly overweight 13-year-old with a single dad isn’t complicated enough, the title character in Morris From America is also the only African-American kid in the provincial town of Heidelberg, Germany, where his father works. Though another character study about outsiders from writer-director Chad Hartigan — after 2013’s This is Martin Bonner, about a middle-aged Australian father in Reno — this feature skews younger and as a result is a lot bouncier and ups the sweetness factor, even despite the frequent use of adult language (mostly due to the protagonist’s age-inappropriate infatuation with explicit rap lyrics). Mostly lighthearted and, especially in its closing reels, rather clichéd, the character-driven film nonetheless manages to gently resist the temptation to turn into a full-throttle and heart-warming crowdpleaser, which means niche biz is more likely than a huge commercial breakout.

Rather unexpectedly, shy Yank Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) gets to talking to blond cutie Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old local girl, who asks him how old he is after she’s caught him following her around. After stating he’s also 15, she says she doesn’t believe him. Barely a few seconds later, he admits to being 14 and then 13. Perhaps it’s this awkward honesty, as well as his status as an exotic outsider, that intrigues Katrin, who starts hanging out with him. An invitation to a party she’s also attending, however, ends with Morris getting “his dick wet,” as he later tells it, because she unexpectedly pointed a water pistol at his groin area.

Like many boys his age, Morris is reserved around the older girl, both fascinated and intimidated. Indeed, his complicated relationship with the passive-aggressive — or is it just foreign? — Katrin represents, in a larger sense, Morris’ relationship with the outside world. Though the situations involving Katrin are occasionally overly familiar, the way in which Christmas embodies his character’s unease always feels genuine.

Morris tends to be more relaxed around his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), who’s got his heart in the right place and who’s doing a decent job of raising the boy on his own in a foreign country. Morris also feels strangely at home at the house of Inka (Carla Juri), his German-language tutor, who, despite Morris’ presumption that she’s 40, looks more like she’s in her late 20s, supersized granny spectacles notwithstanding. Inka is like an amalgamation of a surrogate mother and an older friend, keeping an eye out for Morris when needed while teaching him useful things both in German and in general. But in one of Hartigan’s several keenly observed relationship details that ring true, Curtis is a bit territorial about his kid when Inka comes to him with what she thinks is disturbing information about Morris. Thankfully, this isn’t the kind of film where any adults will fall in love.

Hartigan develops his title character through contrasting his relationships with the two people with whom he feels at home on the one hand and the crush-worthy Katrin (and the outside world) on the other. Along the way, the writer-director explores how adolescence and coming into your own has a lot to do with becoming comfortable with yourself no matter who you might be interacting with. This, of course, involves Morris trying to find role models and trying on different personalities for size, including those of gangsta rappers whose bling- and sex-obsessed lyrics have nothing to do at all with Morris’ life as a rotund 13-year-old black kid in Heidelberg, as his father rightfully underlines.

Hartigan manages to squeeze some humor out of this clear disconnect, but at times pushes things into the realm of the implausible, such as when Morris uses his own rudimentary rap lyrics— in which “hos” rhymes with “death row” — in a talent contest. Both Inka and his father have already made a stink about the lines, and seeing how timid and uncomfortable Morris is in front of people he doesn’t know well, it seems unlikely he’d choose to sing these clearly controversial lyrics in front of a group of kids that includes some who’ve been openly picking on him.

The film’s excuse for his behavior (later also repeated at a rather unlikely club performance in Frankfurt) is that he wants to continue to impress Katrin. But her necessarily contradictory character and Morris’ relationship with her are too sketchily developed to get a sense of what especially Katrin wants out of their relationship. A wordless scene involving her cardigan and a pillow, on the other hand, make graphically clear in no uncertain terms what Morris dreams to get out of it, even if Hartigan and Christmas have by that time made it it obvious that the 13-year-old lead is much more comfortable dreaming about it at this stage rather than actually doing it. 

The film’s exploration of stereotypes about Americans and especially African-Americans is mostly a source of facile humor, such as when the young and innocent Katrin is surprised when her new black friend doesn’t dance or play basketball and then goes on to ask him about the size of his manhood. Even though several German adults are clearly prejudiced as well, Hartigan never quite seizes the opportunity to cast father and son’s even more pronounced outsider status in Germany as a way to explore or comment on the black experience back home. Instead, he prefers to stay close to his characters, embodied by impressive newcomer Christmas, whose performance becomes less self-conscious as the film progresses, and a warmly paternal turn from Robinson (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine), effectively cast against type here. 

Visually and in terms of its musical choices, the film also likes to stay close to the main protagonist, adopting a slick, at times almost music video-like aesthetic, with occasional high-angle shots, fast cuts and crisp, fluidly choreographed Steadicam work. A standout is an early, wordless sequence in which a visit to the somewhat stuffy Heidelberg castle turns into a discreet hip-hop party in Morris’ imagination. Like much of the film, it doesn’t exactly feel new but it is well executed and is in service of the characters, with the sequence suggesting both the importance of music for Morris as well as his need to escape from the day-to-day numbness.

Production companies: Lichtblick, Beachside Productions
Cast: Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller, Markees Christmas, Jakub Gierszal, Levin Henning, Patrick Gueldenberg, Eva Loebau
Writer-director: Chad Hartigan
Producers: Martin Heisler, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Gabriele Simon
Executive producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Director of photography: Sean McElwee
Production designer: Babett Klimmeck
Costume designer: Nana Kolbinger
Editor: Anne Fabini
Music: Keegan Dewitt
Casting: Eyde Belasco, Manolya Mutlu
Sales: UTA

Not rated, 91 minutes