Film Review: Morris from America

Set in a picturesque German town, this classic coming-of-age tale gets a refreshing makeover through the insightful and observant approach of writer-director Chad Hartigan. 'Morris from America' is simply heartwarming.
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With his previous film This Is Martin Bonner, writer-director Chad Hartigan affirmed himself as a quietly observant filmmaker, through a gentle story of two lonely men and their unlikely, budding friendship. Examine his acclaimed 2013 feature closely and you will detect hints of Mike Leigh’s assured gaze in Hartigan’s writing and direction, as he deciphers the humanity of his inherently isolated characters with generously open dialogue and earnest extended monologues. In fact, a particular scene in This Is Martin Bonner—in which a father reunites with his long-estranged daughter—was one of the best parent-and child-redemption scenes I had seen since Leigh’s 1996 film Secrets & Lies.

With the tremendously heartwarming Morris from America, his third feature as a writer-director, Hartigan proves his perceptiveness once again and lovingly depicts a parent-child relationship with a much lighter touch but an equally big heart. His latest might be a typical coming-of-age film on paper, but Hartigan’s insightfulness makes it a rather unique and special one.

What makes Morris from America one of a kind is its European setting, which adds a fresh dimension to your run-off-the-mill “social miscast” story. Morris (Markees Christmas, as wonderful and instantly affable as his name) is a 13-year-old African-American kid who’s just been relocated to the breathtakingly picturesque Heidelberg, Germany with his soccer-coach father Curtis (Craig Robinson, perfectly blending his dramatic and comedic chops.) Having lost his wife a while ago, single dad Curtis tries to do right with raising his son—an aspiring rapper stuck amidst a world of techno-loving kids and a decent teenager with growing adolescence pains. It’s when he meets the mysterious and beautiful 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller, alluring) that Morris’ struggles as a loner escalate, spotted both by his college-student language teacher Inka (Carla Juri) and his dad.

Katrin’s introduction to the story reveals the layers of the inner challenges Morris battles on a daily basis. In an overwhelmingly white school and town, the casual racism Morris suffers—with ignorantly stereotyping teenagers assuming he is good at basketball or dancing and, in one instance, his teacher presuming he deals marijuana at school—adds to the profound complexity of his experience as a young foreigner trying to blend into a new culture while maintaining his own voice and identity. “We’re the only two brothers in this city, we’ve got to stick together,” Curtis tells his modestly rebelling son Morris in one scene, reminding him he is just as lonesome a fish-out-of-water as he is. Hartigan navigates their familial bond with a liberal touch of sweetness and gentle awe. This is evident in all of their exchanges at home and elsewhere, but especially near the film’s finale: After Morris naively joins Katrin and her DJ boyfriend on a tour without his dad’s consent and finds himself abandoned in an unfamiliar city, the genuinely tender monologue Craig Robinson delivers to mend his son’s broken spirit earns tears. 

If I have a quibble against Morris from America, it is that Katrin comes unfortunately close to an enchanting yet futile “manic pixie dream girl” trope, only there to further a male character’s purpose and resolution. It helps that these are all kids dealing with their own share of problems and that Hartigan tries to inject some depth into Katrin’s character, even though her stormy relationship with her mother never quite registers. To his eventual credit, Hartigan doesn’t offhandedly dispose of Katrin without giving her the final word, which alleviates the story’s forgivable clumsiness in handling her.

In the end, this is Morris’ story. And he is perhaps the most disarmingly lovable young teen to come of age in American independent cinema (which has no shortage of such fare) in recent years. Hartigan openly adores this good-natured kid and his amiable, giving father. He makes sure you do, too.

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