Morris From America

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Drama Director: Chad Hartigan

This is not Martin Bonner.

Filmmaker Chad Hartigan’s previous film was a quiet, meditative tale about transitions and faith, the unexpected paths we take in life and those we encounter on those paths. It was charming and affecting, having a strong sense of direction without ever feeling overly controlled. I loved it.

This is Morris Gentry, a 13-year-old African-American living in Germany with his dad. Morris is wonderfully portrayed by Markees Christmas with an adolescent authenticity and awkwardness. Morris’ father Curtis (Craig Robinson) is a widower trying to be a good dad to Morris as he coaches for a German soccer team. They do find parallels with Martin Bonner’s transitional life–moving to a brand new place, feeling out of sorts with both the external environment and internal feelings, unsure how to move forward in faith and hope.

While this theme of transition is evident, the tone, direction, and cinematography are all so remarkably distinct from each other as to have come from a wholly different director. Martin Bonner is full of taupes and greys, the color washed out, the environments fairly sparse, the performances subtle and nuanced. In contrast, the best word for describing Morris From America is “colorful.” From the expletive-laden language of the rap music Morris and Craig both enjoy and mimic, to the saturated colors highlighting the German landscape, this is a bright and boisterous film while still retaining its indie-film intimacy. The film nearly feels like it glows.

Morris From America hits many of the familiar beats of the coming-of-age genre, from the various adult mentors/influences (Carla Juri as Inka the German tutor plays a significant role), to the adolescent crush (portrayed with a vicious fervor by Lina Keller), to the German bullies, to the various awkward-yet-life-shaping moments in Morris’ life. There’s a road trip, angry parental confrontations, dabbling with alcohol and drugs, party scenes–you name the coming-of-age trope, and it’s likely present in the film. Yet Hartigan manages to take such familiar material and infuse it with a freshness that overcomes the sense of cliche, partly due to the unique backdrop (a black teen growing up in Germany) and partly due to the understated performances from Christmas and Robinson. The latter’s own coming-of-age journey in this film as a husband grieving the loss of his wife while still trying to raise his son in a foreign country is perhaps just as affecting as Morris’s exploits, and Robinson’s performance is especially good here. He’s certainly funny, but the role isn’t used just for laughs–he’s a true character, and his journey is just as important as Morris’s. In a latter scene, where Robinson shares some fatherly wisdom with Morris in a car ride, the camera slowly pans around from the exterior in a 90 degree arc. It’s an incredible shot highlighting the best moment in the film, where father and son are being wholly honest with each other, creating a moment of genuine empathy and intimacy without feeling mawkish or manipulative.

So it’s not Martin Bonner. There are uneven moments, tonal discrepancies, and some scenes and environments which simply feel small (both of Morris’s rap performances in the film–one at a talent show and the other at a night club–have the aesthetic of what I can only describe as a TV studio set. I found myself torn from the narrative by the smallness/fakeness of the set design). But this is Morris. Morris From America. It’s an solid addition to the coming-of-age genre, and perhaps indicative of Hartigan’s own journey as a filmmaker, as it’s an ambitious experiment which succeeds in what it does. I can’t wait to see what Hartigan creates next.

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