Morris from America (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): African American father and son in Germany

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“Morris from America”, which received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, is plainer than I expected. As phlegmatically observing the bumpy struggle of its young hero in his new and alien environment, the movie gives us typical adolescent moments coupled with some interesting elements of cultural stereotype, and it is a bit shame that the movie does not delve deeper into its subjects, even though there are enough good things to engage and amuse us.

In the beginning, the movie shows us a private musical moment between a 13-year-old African American boy named Morris (Markees Christmas) and his widower father Curtis (Craig Robinson). They recently moved to Heidelberg, Germany as Curtis is hired as the new coach for a local soccer team, and Curtis hopes that his son will be all right in this new environment, but Morris is not so happy about this change as feeling lonely and isolated. Whenever he is not having a private German lesson with his generous tutor Inka (Carla Juri), he often goes around here and there in the city while listening to rap music, and we later get a brief amusing scene which shows how things look a bit different to him through the rap music he is listening to.

Concerned a lot about his son’s well-being, Curtis has Morris go to a local youth center where he may befriend other kids in the neighborhood, but Morris only finds himself feeling more isolated while also ridiculed by some kids. At one point, one of these kids jokingly calls him Kobe Bryant, and we are automatically reminded of how African Americans are frequently labeled by their stereotypical images.

Anyway, Morris does not give a damn about how he is perceived by other kids, but then he comes to pay attention to an older girl named Katrin (Lina Keller). Although their first direct encounter is awkward to say the least, Katrin also seems to be interested in befriending Morris, and she invites him to an evening party, but then he is embarrassed to find himself becoming the target of a small prank involved with a water pistol.

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Despite this embarrassing experience, Morris comes to spend more time with Katrin, and he later shares his passion on rap music with her when she brings him to her house. He has a cassette copy of his father’s old amateur rap performance, so he plays the cassette for listening to it along with Katrin, but, to his disappointment, his father’s performance is not exactly exciting for understandable reasons.

Meanwhile, he keeps trying to make his own rap music, but his attempt is not that successful. When Curtis happens to know about what his son has been writing, he scolds his son not for using vulgar words but for not being truthful in his lyrics at all, and his critical comment turns out to be right. When Morris later attempts to present his insincere rap in front of others at the youth center, he only comes to embarrass himself, and he also gets himself kicked out of the youth center.

After that narrative point, the screenplay by director/writer Chad Hartigan seems to wander aimlessly along with its struggling hero for a while, and it is disappointing that the movie does not explore more of Morris’ musical sensitivity, but the movie thankfully regains its narrative momentum when Morris happens to go to Frankfurt along with Katrin for a music concert. During that concert, he comes across a real chance to demonstrate his nascent musical talent in front of many people, and the result is better than he expected as he follows his father’s advice.

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The best scene in the film comes from when Curtis shows his son more of his sincere love and concern later in the story. At first, he merely seems to talk about one memorable time in his past, but he gradually and touchingly shows his deep understanding and empathy to his son, and Morris is reminded again of how much his father loves and cares about him.

Two main performers in the movie support well their film even when it stumbles. Newcomer Markees Christmas holds the center well in his unadorned performance, and I was impressed by how effortlessly he clicks well with his co-star Craig Robinson. Right from their first scene, they quickly establish the strong relationship between their characters, and they are constantly engaging in their interactions on the screen. Robinson, who has been mainly known for his comic talent since he played a supporting character in TV sitcom series “The Office”, shows his unexpected serious side here in this film, and I was certainly surprised and entertained by that. While occasionally becoming a little humorous as required, he did a good job of gently conveying to us his character’s feelings and thoughts, and his understated performance deservedly received the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Although I think it could be more improved to some degrees (the supporting characters besides Katrin and Morris’ tutor are mostly broad stereotypes, for example), “Morris from America”, which is currently available on Netflix, is still an admirable work on the whole, and I had a mildly pleasant time with it. Like any good coming-of-age drama, it surely let me sense how much its hero grows up through his experiences in the end, and that is enough for me.

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