Hartigan’s ‘Morris from America’ is unapologetic, emotional
As Jeru the Damaja’s profanity-laced rap song “Come Clean” began to play over the opening credits of “Morris from America,” I could practically feel every person over 60 in the theater clench up inside. It didn’t take long for the couple behind me to walk out. When that happened, I thought to myself, “I’m going to enjoy this movie.” I can’t help but admire a movie that begins with a bang and weeds out any audience member not interested in meeting it on its own terms.
Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) is a 13-year-old American who has just moved to Heidelberg, Germany so his father Curtis (Craig Robinson) can be a soccer coach for the local team. Inka (Carla Juri), Morris’s eccentric but compassionate German teacher, encourages him to participate in activities at the local youth center, where Morris eventually meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a 15-year-old German girl who playfully flirts with our naïve American hero. The rest of the movie chronicles Morris’s attempts to get Katrin to see him as a potential romantic partner rather than a silly little boy from across the ocean.
“Morris from America” works on so many different levels. For one thing, Christmas is a natural talent, and I genuinely believe that he could eventually become quite the film star. He manages to perfectly embody Morris’s mixture of emotions as the character tries to make friends and impress others in this foreign, uncaring environment. The script seems intelligent enough to realize that Morris doesn’t have to be some sort of angelic child to be relatable. He can be stubborn, irrational and occasionally even prone to anger, but Christmas always finds a way to make him likeable and charismatic. Robinson is also fantastic as Morris’s struggling father. Curtisrecently lost his wife and is clearly still grieving, but we only notice this in moments when no one else is around. The rest of the time, Curtis is trying to do the best job he can raising a son whose rebellious tendencies mirror his own. At the very end of the film, Curtis tells Morris the story of his first time in Germany, allowing the audience to understand his unique but surprisingly effective parenting method. That scene is Robinson’s show stopper; he sells every line without being sappy. The rest of the cast ranges from excellent to passable in all of their roles, with the most noticeable standout being Patrick Güldenberg as Sven, the counselor in charge of the youth center. He probably has less than five minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of it, perfectly capturing the sickly sweet hipster youth counselor that we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives.
Although the storyline is pretty standard, it still manages to be effective. The ending didn’t wrap up the story in the way I had predicted. I certainly won’t spoil what happens here, but suffice it to say the film leaves Morris’s future slightly ambiguous in a way that feels true to real life. Speaking of real life, the film subtly addresses the racism that Morris and Curtis face in this new environment. Every time these every-day moments of racism take place, the audience feels the sting right alongside the characters. The film doesn’t set out to make a point but instead allows these incidents to be naturally incorporated into the story, reminding the audience that so often it is the little things in life that inflict the most pain.
For all of its charm and warmth, “Morris from America” does have two minor but very noticeable flaws. The first is the director’s stylized approach to certain scenes. Every once in a while, the film will abandon realism and make a specific moment feel slightly surreal. The intention behind these sequences is clearly to get inside Morris’s headspace so that we can better experience what he’s going through. The stylization, however, is so irregular that it comes off as incredibly jarring. It may give the film a unique flavor, but that flavor tastes of dissonance. The other, slightly bigger, issue is the film’s inclusion of emotionally charged moments that often don’t feel properly justified. Once in a while, Morris will just act out in anger or in sadness and these scenes, once again, feel jarring within the context of the film. It’s not that we don’t understand what he’s going through so much as the movie doesn’t effectively build up his emotional outbursts. They just come out of nowhere and recede just as quickly.
Those problems, though, are minor nitpicks and did little to impede my enjoyment of a truly funny and heartfelt film. “Morris from America” is very much like its protagonist: it goes its own way and it really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. I mean that in the best possible way.