MORRIS FROM AMERICA Review

Though Morris from America initially feels as if it will hit on something refreshingly cool that hint of uniqueness slowly wears off as it becomes apparent the film is little more than a fish out of water tale that serves only to make the more central coming-of-age story that much more awkward. What allows the film to maintain this somewhat refreshing momentum are the performances and chemistry between star Craig Robinson (The Office) and newcomer Markees Christmas who plays the titular Morris. This father/son dynamic rescues the film from what is otherwise an oddly constructed sequence of events that puts Morris in league with a young German girl named Katrin (Lina Keller) who plays with Morris' feelings at once seeming as if she'll be his gateway and his salvation in this foreign land while at another being largely indifferent and vague about her intentions. While the tertiary relationship that is established when the film begins works effortlessly it is in attempting to construct this central young love fable that isn't meant to be so that Morris learns life's lessons the hard way that never fully clicks. In light of this it is something of a shame the film ends up spending more time on the Morris/Katrin dynamic than it does either that of Morris' relationship with Robinson's Curtis or even his German tutor, Inka (Carla Juri), who Morris develops a trust with that he hasn't been able to find outside of his father. The film also seems to want to upend the conventions of typical coming-of-age tales, but isn't sure how to do so other than by making its protagonist less of an introvert than these characters usually are and combating that character trait by changing the standard high school environment to that of a German youth center that isn't keen on accepting the hip-hop loving Morris. In the end, the film still finds itself in the position of adhering to such genre conventions by having Morris overcome his fears and insecurities in a public display of his true talent that finally gives way to some type of acceptance. Morris from America, much like Morris himself, doesn't seem to really know what it is. It has numerous influences and ideas, but it's not sure how to meld these attributes into its own thing.    

We meet Morris, a 13-year-old African-American, and his dad Curtis as Curtis attempts to sway his son to the vibes of 1994's Jeru The Damaja's "Come Clean," but Morris dismisses the beat for being too slow and can't get into the song because of its lack of a good hook. The choice of song is telling though as Jeru hues to the lessons Curtis teaches his son as far as rapping about what you know instead of using one's rhymes to reflect a life one wished they lived. The use of the track comes full circle when Morris samples the hook he initially doesn't pick up on in that aforementioned public display of talent. While this inevitable performance inevitably sums up all of the life lessons Morris has learned in the eighty or so minutes prior that we've spent with him it also brings about nicely the culmination of the struggles Morris has faced in his move to Heidelberg that give him promise for something to look forward to rather than remaining unmotivated as he continues to harbor a hatred for this place he doesn't call home. It should be noted that despite the film not addressing these character issues it brings up through any means of visual storytelling Robinson gives a third act speech to rival most parent to child third act speeches. Robinson really is the MVP here despite his role feeling shortchanged. Morris has come to live in Germany because his dad, who was once a player, now coaches professional soccer. Without a mother and with no one else to look after him Morris is more or less forced to explore this new culture on his own and by Katrin insinuating an interest in him Morris begins to feel encouraged to open up a little and share his rapping.

Morris (Markees Christmas) and his father, Curtis (Craig Robsinson) bond over music and being the only two brothers in Germany.
Going into the film I hoped it might deliver more on what last year's Dope seemed to promise in that it was a film about the love and adoration of a different time period's music because that time period was being romanticized through the lens of its entertainment rather than the main character having actually experienced it. My hope after seeing the first teaser for Morris from America was that it might break down this divide and explore it as Robinson's character lived through the nineties and more than that they were the formative years of his life. As a result, Curtis has relayed his love for the music of that time to his son who will only ever know that decade through the music his dad shows him. I expected Morris, to a degree, to embrace that music and let it fuel his obsession with hip-hop and rapping while becoming unaffected by the music of his own generation. Rather, Morris from America is a film that only uses its musical component as a means of connection between different characters rather than as a metaphor for allowing someone to become their own man-which it seemed to want to do at first, but couldn't decide if it wanted to commit to fully. It's a shame, really as there is clearly a lot of potential held within writer/director Chad Hartigan's second feature film and its approach to youth not necessarily as a stage of life, but as an attitude. The film quotes Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his saying that youth should be an expression of will, imagination, and emotional identity-a victory of courage over disheartenment, and the victory of a spirit of adventure over idleness all of which Hartigan's film attempts to capture throughout the course of its brief running time. And despite the film succeeding in allowing Morris to explore his imagination and express himself thus leading to courage over disheartenment it is unclear if our lead will ever be able to embrace a spirit of adventure when, despite the film and his father pushing him to do so, the events up until this point in his life have left him feeling idle. Despite an interesting premise and the compelling arcs its characters go on Morris from America ultimately has very little attitude in its youthful execution.