‘Morris from America’ is a coming-of-age Christmas gift
Written/directed by: Chad Hartigan
Starring: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Lina Keller, and Carla Juri
“Morris from America”: Morris wants to be a gangster rap artist. Morris likes one marshmallow in his hot chocolate. Morris is 13 years old.
Although Morris (Markees Christmas) has big dreams of super rap-stardom, he – like almost all young teens – finds himself spending most of his days emotionally confined in a world of parental and scholastic rules, while hormonal tugs between childhood and adulthood twist him into knots. I’ve heard over the years - ad nauseam - that one’s high school or collegiate years are the best times of one’s life, but I would like to point out that middle school has to be the most confusing and turbulent.
To throw another log onto the confusing fire, Morris’ dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), found a new job in Heidelberg, Germany and moved the two of them to this picturesque but foreign locale from Richmond. Now, Morris – the only black teen at the nearby youth center - needs to learn the local language, make friends and find positive ways to channel his frustration in this wonderfully quirky and entertaining coming-of-age story.
While Morris attempts to expand his world view on the other side of the globe, writer/director Chad Hartigan adds a turbulent and reckless catalyst, a pretty, blonde 15-year-old German girl named Katrin (Lina Keller). Katrin smokes, drinks, takes drugs, and loves to mix it up at parties, and Morris is instantly smitten at first sight. Although we clearly realize that she is a terrible influence on Morris, Keller and Christmas have friendly, on-screen chemistry, and some of their best scenes are when Katrin explores their racial and cultural differences. Katrin generally likes Morris as a friend, but the initial attraction is because he looks, acts and talks differently than everyone else. They bond over music, and the film’s soundtrack smartly plays heavy doses of rap while Morris sightsees on his own, and then it moves to techno tunes when Katrin enters his life.
Although a romantic end result seems unlikely, Morris and Katrin’s misadventures are bound to generate smiles and laughs, as we simultaneously hope that the broken curfews (and the reasons for them) do not harm our new 13-year-old friend. Hartigan helps balance Katrin’s mischief with two likable adults to square the moral scale in the forms of his aforementioned father and 20-something German tutor, Inka (Carla Juri).
Curtis loves his son dearly and truly attempts to grant him space and freedom, but with Morris walking into the house at 12:30 a.m. without much of an explanation, Dad needs to rein in this inexperienced mass of teenage hormones. The film deliberately spends some personal time with Curtis too, and the script does not treat him as a clueless, out-of-touch parent who blindly barks orders and lays down the law. Hartigan effectively plays a few short scenes in which Curtis sits alone at a quiet dinner table or ponders a past loss, and the movie contrasts these solitary moments with Morris enjoying overflowing crowds at loud parties.
When Curtis and Morris do capture some instances of real communication, many of the substantive exchanges unfortunately flow in one direction, from father to son. Morris generally keeps Curtis in the dark. He does, however, shine a light on some of his experiences to Inka, and she warmly listens and offers mentor or “aunt like” advice. On a larger scale, Inka is a positive female (and German) role model for Morris and another pleasant character for the movie audience.
Part of the picture’s charm is its German setting, and the beautiful summer environment steeped in foreign culture and language places Morris in unexplored territory. For most of us, it offers the same, unfamiliar ground.
Although “Morris from America” is grounded with a familiar story arc, the film offers several surprises and a terrific breakout performance from Christmas. With a speedy runtime of 1 hour 31 minutes, will this little summer adventure push Morris towards a future, glorious rap career? Well, it is certainly possible.
For now, there is plenty of time to ponder lyrics, experience life and sip a cup of hot chocolate with one marshmallow. (3.5/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.