'Morris from America'
Chad Hartigan’s ‘Morris from America’ is a unique coming-of-age tale that wisely never attempts to do anything too big. On a certain level, we’ve seen this all before: the lonely kid lost in the world, the impossible crush, the lovable dad he doesn’t quite have the time for, and of course the awkward growth. But the director wisely never pushes his film too far. Instead of feeling like something we’ve seen in countless worse movies, it feels more like something we’ve seen before in life.
The spectacularly named Markees Christmas plays a 13-year-old boy as awkward as his age suggests. His father is portrayed by a particularly lovable Craig Robinson, and the opening scene establishes their loving, bickering relationship before revealing that the pair currently live in Germany. The father, Curtis, is working there as a soccer coach, and the boy feels particularly out of place. His closest thing to a friend other than pops is a twenty-something German tutor (Carla Juri) and even their relationship is playfully combative. He attempts to mingle with the local German teens, but their cultural differences create as much distance as you’d expect. Most of them just assume that Morris should love basketball and hip-hop because of his skin color. They’re only right about the latter. (The kid has even started writing rhymes.) However, one blonde beauty (Lina Keller) takes a shine to the boy. This sparks pretty much instant love from Morris that isn’t returned.
The unexpected setting for this story proves to be one of its greatest strengths. Morris and Curtis couldn’t be more out of place, which heightens their co-dependency and distance from their surroundings. Their relationship is wonderful. In particular, Robinson gets a chance to deliver a more naturalistic character than he’s ever been allowed before without losing any of his usual hilarity. He’s warm and excellent in the role, hinting at a tragic past that left his character a widower without ever explaining things unnecessarily. Christmas is even better, a real find who balls up in discomfort and opens up in moving ways without ever feeling forced or precious. The kid is a natural.
Writer/director Hartigan shoots the movie subjectively from Morris’ perspective with all sorts of visual tricks that heighten the boy’s uncomfortable surroundings. However, the movie always remains powerfully grounded to reality. It’s obviously a personal story for Hartigan, who spent a few years in Germany as a child. One of the major lessons Curtis tries to impart to his budding hip-hop star is to appreciate that his unique experiences will make him thrive as an artist. That extends to what makes this gently comedic tale resonate so deeply. It’s often uncomfortably real, especially in how the filmmaker develops the relationship between his protagonist and a crush who barely has any interest in him. For anyone who ever pursued someone who was mostly in it for the attention, the story will cause cringes of recognition. Thankfully, that material is never sentimentalized or dulled. The little moments of growth and learning that define the narrative hit home more than grand dramatics would. As specific and unique as this story may be, the emotional truths are damn near universal.
The only bum note in the delightful ‘Morris from America’ is the fact that Hartigan loves his characters and world too much to hurt them or cause an imbalance. While he wraps things up in a sweetly satisfying way, it’s almost a little too kind and happy to ring as true as what came before. It works, but may sacrifice a little truth in the process. That’s fine. If the worst thing that you can say about an indie dramedy is that it makes you feel a little better than you should at the end, that’s hardly a bad thing.
[Note: ‘Morris from America’ has only recently opened theatrically in Canada. In the U.S., the film played in limited release in August and will be released on Blu-ray this week.]